Labour's Learning Revolution: a pillar of the Big Society?
"Protect and reform" is the Government's mantra for its approach to adult and community learning - a vast range of provision which is not strictly vocational and which paid the price for the last administration's heavy bet on work-related learning.
FE minister John Hayes and business secretary Vince Cable have stressed their commitment to adult education in its broadest sense, with Mr Cable revealing how college courses helped his mother after she suffered a breakdown. But the fear remains that, in difficult financial circumstances, the word reform can conceal a multitude of sins.
The first signs of their intentions for adult and community learning are emerging this month as the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills begins a review and consultation expected to last 10 months.
A department spokeswoman outlined two key principles: that adult and community learning must contribute to the Big Society in promoting personal development, good health, digital inclusion and family learning; and that it should engage and motivate disadvantaged people, bringing them into mainstream learning.
Alan Tuckett, director of adult education body Niace, says that the Learning Revolution, an initiative launched by the last government to support community organisations that help adults run study groups, offers a Big Society blueprint.
"We will be arguing to Government that it's an exercise worth building on. However much money there is, some of it should be spent on supporting that," he says.
"But we have to achieve a balance between the need (for groups) to be as imaginative as they can be without losing the professionalism of qualified teachers. You'll make more progress in French or Serbo-Croat lessons if you have a disciplined teacher along the way. That's different from self- organised book groups or web study groups."
Richard Bolsin, general secretary of the Workers' Educational Association, the UK's largest voluntary adult education provider, says many councils are considering outsourcing adult education as a result of tough financial settlements. That could provide an opportunity for Learning Revolution- style projects.
"The reform that ministers want is supposed to be particularly about the contribution that it makes to the Big Society," he says.
"There was a massive response to the original Learning Revolution. It was hugely positive and brought together lots of organisations as well as traditional providers: voluntary groups; the BBC; the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council; the British Library.
"This Government, and John Hayes in particular, has gone a long way to try and ensure that some of the successes of that project are recognised and built on. Those sorts of projects can be the sort of thing that safeguarded adult learning funding could help to contribute towards.
"What (the Learning Revolution) didn't have was in-built progression and development. One of my criticisms was that it was a great initiative that fell flat at the end. For the people who participated, the experience they had was in some cases transformational but they couldn't continue because it was a one-off. But it would be possible to build something quite sustainable."
With the original one-year experiment of the Learning Revolution costing pound;20 million, just a small part of the safeguarded learning budget of pound;210 million a year could support it on an ongoing basis. If the review endorses this view, it could be one of the largest Big Society projects - ironic, since it would build on a Labour initiative.
Much of the defence of adult and community learning when it faced cuts in the middle of the last decade revolved around the most disadvantaged learners. It was argued that they were often not ready for accredited qualifications and preferred learning in smaller community centres.
But Peter Davies, principal of specialist adult education college City Lit in central London, warns against focusing too narrowly on disadvantage. His college relies on attracting often well-educated working people to fee-paying courses which then subsidise provision for the poorest. Focusing solely on disadvantage could put this cross-subsidy at risk.
Mr Davies says: "Although disadvantaged people and those furthest from getting back to education are important, I wouldn't want it to be only that. We have a good cross- section of society and not everyone who wants to go back into education to better themselves wants to start at entry level.
"Every day for the past two years I've passed a chap on my way to work who was originally rough-sleeping and is now selling The Big Issue. It's fascinating that he's now making tentative steps to come back to a course at City Lit. But he's not going to simply do a return-to-work or return- to-study course. He's going to do creative writing and screenwriting."
This wider approach to study does not mean a return to the days of subsidised courses for the middle class - something that infuriated Labour ministers in the last government as they railed against people supposedly learning Spanish at the taxpayers' expense before travelling to their holiday homes.
Mr Davies says: "The whole question is that those who can afford to pay, should. At City Lit, that's exactly the case. Almost half of all our income comes from fees."
About a third of students are not subsidised at all and pay more or less cost price for their courses. The rest are supported to varying degrees. Although 30 per cent are unemployed, Mr Davies says the "working poor" is one of the most important groups to support, especially as new Government rules are set to restrict full funding to those on benefits and looking for work.
Another funding change presents a major threat to some of the nine dedicated adult education colleges, known as specialist designated institutions. While their funding was protected during the shift to prioritise level 2 and level 3 qualifications under Labour, they face the same requirement to demonstrate success in getting students into employment as any other college.
This year, 2.5 per cent of funding is held back unless colleges get students into work, which Ela Piotrowska, principal of Morley College in south London, says amounts to an additional cut for her college. The Skills Funding Agency has said that up to 20 per cent in future could depend on employment outcomes.
Ms Piotrowska says: "It would completely decimate us. We would not survive that in the long run. We would have to raise our fees, and that would be contradictory to our mission, for our organisation's work with a diverse population. The people who come to us speak 120 languages, for instance. Lambeth and Southwark are two of the most deprived parts of the country, and unemployment is rising."
Jill Westerman, principal of Northern College near Barnsley, says another area of provision is also under pressure. She recalls a recent student in her 40s who worked as a supermarket shelf-stacker and came to the college for some short courses, before eventually taking an access-to-higher- education course that allowed her to train as a teacher.
In future, students will have to pay for the cost of access-to-HE courses through loans. But Ms Westerman says burdening them with an additional cost overlooks the difficulty for people returning to education late in life, who will also face fees of pound;27,000 if they aim to study at university.
She says: "For me it's a class issue. It's generally working-class people who won't have gone to university at 18. And these are often people who have spent a lot of effort staying out of debt all their lives."
Niace, which will be helping to run some of the focus group sessions to inform the review, says retaining the breadth of the curriculum would be critical. And as City Lit's Mr Davies says: "One of the important things about the specialist designated institutions is that we are standard bearers for adult education. If you don't have them driving a range of adult education, there's a danger that it will wither away."
STARTING OVER MARK BEATON
`It has changed my life'
Defenders of adult and community learning say it has powerful but unpredictable economic benefits. Mark Beaton, who last year won an Adult Learners' Week Award, fought his way out of a life of mental and physical illness, homelessness and unemployment to start his own business as a sports massage therapist.
But when he began his studies he was only aiming to build his confidence after years of depression and anxiety.
"I left home when I was about 15 so I never finished school," he says. "I've always suffered from depression and mental health problems. I could suffer up to 10 panic attacks a day at just the thought of going outside. My doctor eventually was saying, `Mark, you know, you've got to go out and do something'.
Starting again 30 years after leaving school was a major challenge, but tutors at Morley College praised his work and he grew in confidence, so that even when he developed carpal tunnel syndrome he was undeterred from gaining formal qualifications and starting his business after an operation.
"I have a real passion for what I'm doing now. So consequently it's not only changed my career, it's also completely changed my life," he says.