If the ideal of a lifetime of education is to be realised, the funding mechanisms have to be right. Nic Barnard reports
Funding for lifelong learning and adult education is notoriously complex, a patchwork of resources, some big, some small, some national, some local.
And if the adult learning of the future is to be characterised by diversity - that broad mix of formal and informal provision, in settings ranging from the workplace to the classroom to the health centre to the living room - the big challenge is likely to be making sure funds get where they are needed.
Governments traditionally like the "big bang" - major initiatives, such as community learning centres and new grants for those working for GCSE-level qualifications. But the most effective ways to bring people back into adult learning are the small-scale, often informal, unaccredited programmes, precisely the kind of things that can get overlooked.
"We need a funding mechanism that recognises the importance of adult learning that doesn't immediately lead to qualifications or feed into an accredited course or job," argues Alan Tuckett, director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education.
"In an ideal world, you'd be able to put your toe in the water, knowing there was a local commitment to fund a wide range of studies."
The experience of countries such as Denmark suggests that outreach work, planting the seeds of adult learning in hard-to-reach communities, needs only a modest but sustained investment. And international research by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development suggests that the closer funding decisions are made to the community, the more effective they are.
Mr Tuckett agrees: "You cannot sit in an office in Leicester and prescribe what will work best in rural Devon or inner-city Birmingham," he says.
"Funding needs to be channelled through people with the capacity to see the local picture. It's a role that fits local authorities and Learning and Skills Councils.
LSCs are not always popular but Mr Tuckett believes their role is, at least in theory, the right one, taking an overview of how colleges, universities, community organisations and other providers can fit together. Their biggest problem isn't structural, he says, but the conflict between a broad remit and narrow targets focused on jobs and qualifications. That, and a tight budget.
"Funded properly, there's nothing wrong with LSCs looking at a local area to plan and secure wider participation, breadth of curriculum and the pursuit of a vibrant economy," he says.
Will this model survive, though, in the increasing marketisation of education? Even its defenders admit adult learners suffer a postcode lottery, with some LSCs taking a creative, long-term view while others stick to short-term targets. Others doubt the need for an overseeing body at all.
Peter Robinson, senior economist at the Institute for Public Policy Research, says funding should follow the informed choices of students.
They, he says, are "best-placed to understand what learning might contribute to their place in the employment market or their health and happiness".
"We now have a peculiar system where an 18-year-old can choose what course to do (at university) while a truly adult learner is much more constrained."
Vidhya Alakeson, research fellow in adult education and life chances at the Social Market Foundation, agrees. "The idea behind LSCs is that they're better placed, because they're closer to the ground, to see what the needs are and to fund accordingly.
"But previous attempts at micro-managing that way haven't been particularly successful. I don't see a strong case for that funding model. It could easily be funded direct to institutions."
Alternatively, she suggests, funding for government priorities could be channelled through the workplace, since evidence suggests they achieve better there than in the classroom.
"It would be more effective to get people into employment first, even if it means subsidising employers."
Certainly employers are likely to find themselves contributing more, not least because they are among the major beneficiaries of a better-skilled, better-motivated workforce. But Julian Gravatt, director of funding and development at the Association of Colleges, warns that employers traditionally expect government to foot the bill for adult learning.
Learners, too, will have to dig deeper. Last year's LSC consultation suggested a contribution of between 35 and 40 per cent from those who can afford it. Mr Gravatt warns that it is likely to throw up some interesting conflicts.
"Public provision increasingly leads towards national qualifications but, quite often, the things that individuals might be prepared to pay for don't lead to qualifications - they are more lifestyle-related."
He also worries that the further from the centre, the more hands the money passes through and the more gets creamed off. "How many hands does the money go through before it actually pays for teaching and learning?"
But Mr Tuckett fears that if money simply follows student demand, some courses will disappear, just as they are doing in some universities.
"What colleges represent is an investment in a range of possibilities," he says. "There is a balance to be struck between what people can afford and what needs to be subsidised. Good local planners can do that."
Ultimately, the big questions ahead will be how much the nation is prepared to spend. But if the will exists, we know what needs to be done to plant the seeds.
"Nationally, you need broad principles, stable institutions, investment to secure the curriculum range, and a focus on those who aren't learning through outreach work in those communities that have benefited least from education," Mr Tuckett says.
"If you do all that, you will have a really vibrant lifelong learning culture."
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