To rethink FE is not to destroy it

24th October 2008 at 01:00

I share Paul Mackney's passion for learning (FE Focus, October 17). I believe learning should change people's lives and that the more you learn, the more that you and your family benefit.

There are indeed many people who need our help so that they can learn and get the benefits education brings. But to claim FE and adult education have been pillaged is simply not true.

The budget for FE has gone up by almost 50 per cent. By 2010, we will spend nearly Pounds 5 billion on adult education and skills each year - the most any government has spent.

We have re-prioritised learning in two important ways - first for those adults that need it most and second by providing more valuable courses. In the last five years, we have taught 2.25 million adults to read and write. We have also helped more than 7 million adults obtain vocational qualifications.

People take courses for many reasons. Their motivation is primarily about a more fulfilled life for them and their children.

It is true these changes have meant the absolute number of LSC-funded courses has dropped. But we have put more money into adult apprenticeships and longer vocational qualifications, such as those through Train to Gain.

I want to take issue with Mr Mackney on three points in particular.

First, he assumes that if a course is not funded by the LSC it no longer exists. Second, he is out of date in his attitude to employer-funded courses. Third, his belief that adult education counts only if it is subsidised and funded by my department.

Many courses that were funded by the LSC are now paid for by employers. Examples of this are many shorter health and safety, food hygiene and ICT courses. The courses still take place, and often in FE colleges.

We know two-thirds of employers currently train their staff, together spending some Pounds 38 billion each year.

The needs of employers are not the only driver in the system. Even beyond 2010, there will be more money in the FE budget that is spent according to the wishes and demands of individuals, even after the Train to Gain budget reaches Pounds 1 billion in 201011.

Mr Mackney misses the true extent of learning in society. For example, it is true that Spanish for holidays was one of the most heavily-subsidised short courses in the past, but these courses have not stopped. The Floodlight prospectus lists more than 1,000 in London alone.

He also argues there has been a 25 per cent drop in pensioners attending classes, but doesn't mention that many are now learning in new ways. The U3A (University of the Third Age) movement is hugely popular. There were 47 new local groups established in the last year and membership has already topped 200,000.

Lifelong learning should be available to everybody, and in the form they want. For some, this will be regular classes, but for others it will mean using new technology. Our recent consultation on informal adult learning attempts to draw out the variety of ways in which people choose to learn.

I want to make sure we lose no opportunity either for pleasure or for personal progression as we rethink and reshape our system. This is why I am writing to members of the Campaigning Alliance for Lifelong Learning to invite them to discuss how this can be achieved. But to claim levels of loss and destruction that are sensationalist and misleading, as Paul Mackney does, threatens to undermine our shared passions and principles.

John Denham, Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills.

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