Don't erase opportunities for those in need

6th May 2011 at 01:00

No one can doubt FE minister John Hayes's passionate belief in the role adult learning has in transforming lives, illustrated recently at the final Community Learning Champions conference. Funded for two years under the previous government's Learning Revolution, this project demonstrated that the work of union learning representatives, providing peer group guidance on returning to learning, could be effective in communities. It showed the impact that the champions had on the lives of neighbours and friends, inspiring them to return to study, and the marked effect on the self-esteem and prospects of the champions themselves.

The minister attended the conference and stayed to watch a powerful film. At the end, Mr Hayes asked to speak again. Visibly moved, he promised to ensure the work would continue. That, of course, is the hope of every short-term project with a successful outcome, but you need a minister with sufficient empathy and clarity of purpose to make such a commitment there and then.

The same commitment, shared with business secretary Vince Cable, was evident when they saw off the Treasury's campaign to reduce the "safeguarded" pound;210 million for uncertificated adult education. It was evident in the protection of the Union Learning Fund, and in universities minister David Willetts's move to offer equitable loans to part-time, overwhelmingly adult students in higher education - and to plan a comparable move in FE. It was there, too, in the plans for an all-age careers service.

So where have the problems come from? Colleges, particularly in areas of urban deprivation, tell of insurmountable difficulties in claiming their full adult-learning allocations from the Skills Funding Agency. This is the result of a toxic combination of changes to the eligibility criteria for fee reductions for learners, with cuts in the funding rates for those in literacy and Esol (English for speakers of other languages) classes. It comes on top of reductions planned by the previous government, the re- balancing of budgets attendant on the end of Train to Gain and increased investment in apprentices. More is to come in 201213, when lone parents, among others not "actively seeking work", will be hit by the new regulations.

We are still waiting for an equality impact assessment, but if half of Esol students cannot afford to study next year, it will sit uncomfortably with prime minister David Cameron's exhortations to everyone living in Britain to learn English. And while it is reasonable to concentrate public support on those actively seeking work, conventional Department for Work and Pensions measures capture men's routes to the labour market. It is women, as "inactive" claimants or the wives of low-wage workers, who will bear the brunt of the changes.

Changing the funding rate for adult literacy students may make sense for those topping up on skills missed at school, but it will be inadequate to help those who need it most. Previously, they were poorly served by a regime that rewarded provision for those needing less help. Now the rate cut makes it difficult for institutions to commit the resources needed to make a difference.

Adults with learning difficulties face another set of barriers. The administrative muddle responsible for securing the rights to learning of 16 to 25-year-olds are paralleled by a policy void for those aged 25 and over, not to mention the financial challenges of the Access route to HE and the absence of effective strategies for workplace learning for people in their 40s and 50s.

Mr Hayes and his colleagues urgently need to revisit the changes to regulations and rates, to prevent equality and diversity from becoming optional extras.

Alan Tuckett is chief executive of Niace.

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