Traditional adult education is vanishing across further education as the Government drives forward its skills and qualifications agenda, the latest official statistics show.
The number of over-19s taking courses below level 2 has collapsed over the past three years, falling from 547,200 in 2005-06 to 340,400 in 2007-08 - a 38 per cent drop. And the rate of decline has accelerated, with numbers falling 17 per cent between 2005-06 and 2006-07 (from 547,200 to 453,800), and by 25 per cent between 2006-07 and 2007-08 (from 453,800 to 340,300).
By contrast, the statistics, released last month by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, show an 81 per cent increase between 2005-08 in the number of adults studying for level 2 qualifications, and a 21 per cent increase in those on level 3 courses. There was also notable success in the total number of people starting apprenticeships, with numbers up nearly 22 per cent on 2006-07 to 224,800 - the highest level ever recorded.
Funding for traditional adult learning - sometimes labelled "leisure and pleasure" courses, but which often provide training in marketable skills - was shifted to the Train to Gain initiative, which began in 2006 and is designed to help employers equip their employees with appropriate skills.
The latest statistics show that the number of people starting courses through Train to Gain rose almost 61 per cent between 2006-07 and 2007-08, to 331,800. This will go some way towards allaying fears of a lack of employer interest in the scheme.
Alan Tuckett, chief executive of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, said: "I don't want to be negative about this as the figures do show substantial increases in those gaining qualifications, which is terrific. But education and training that lead to qualifications should be part of the mix, and if we want to achieve a learning society, then we need the broadest possible range of provision."
The figures show how quickly providers have responded to the Government's training and skills agenda.
Overall, the total numbers studying below level 2 fell 23 per cent between 2005-06 and 2007-08. By contrast, the total number of people studying to full level 2 rose by almost 45 per cent over the same period. The numbers studying to full level 3 rose by 14 per cent.
The statistics, revealed in the "Post-16 Education: Learner Participation and Outcomes in England 2007-08" document, show that overall further education numbers in 2007-08 were down 1.5 per cent on the 2006-07 total, which in turn was down 14 per cent on 2005-06.
Much of this was due to the drop in numbers of adult learners in further education, which - excluding higher education delivered in FE - fell from 3.9 million in 2005-06 to 3.1m in 2007-08, a decline of almost 20 per cent.
Nearly 615,000 adults achieved full level 2 in 2007-08, up 81 per cent, while those gaining level 3s rose 21 per cent to 317,500.
The total number of 16 to 18-year-olds in state-funded further education, but excluding sixth forms, was up 2.3 per cent on 2006-07 to 1,026,500.
The Association of Learning Providers, whose members provide the bulk of apprenticeships, welcomed the Government's emphasis on skills and, in particular, praised ministers for ensuring apprenticeships are also available to adults.
Just over 90,000 19 to 24-year-olds started an apprenticeship in 2007-08, up nearly 15 per cent on 2006-07. And 27,200 over-25s began apprenticeships in 2007-08 compared with 300 the year before.
A spokesman for the association said: "This, in our view, is clear evidence that Leitch's advocacy of a demand-led system for skills was not something that just sounded nice in theory, but it would be a very positive step for the economy if the funding system enabled it to happen."