Robbing Peter to train Paul is no solution

7th January 2005 at 00:00
Ruth Kelly faces a major challenge in squaring the Government's ambitions for lifelong learning with the cash available. The economic and demographic logic, as the new Education Secretary will readily recognise, requires a significant expansion in investment in adult learning.

Since there are not enough young people to fill all the new and replacement jobs needed over the next decade, expanding adult skills is essential to the country's economic well-being. Yet the political logic concentrates the debate and demand for new resources on the education and training of the young.

The way the rules were written in the Learning and Skills Act 2000 means that the needs of 16-19s must be met, and adults get what is left. A rise in the size of the 16-19 cohort over the next half decade, and the Government's success at engaging more of that age group in education and training, will squeeze the public budgets available for adult work. The way sixth forms are funded increases the pressure on LSC funds for adults, and Tomlinson's proposals to reform 14-19 education will also need to be paid for. The result is that just when we need to increase capacity to stimulate and satisfy adult learning, cash from the public sector will be tighter than at any time since this Government came to power.

Of course, public funding is not the only source of money. The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education has long argued that employers have an obligation to develop their staff. We argue, too, that those individuals who can pay should pay a higher proportion of the costs, as long as concessions are readily available to those who need them, whatever they are studying. The difficulty is that over the last decade, funding streams have made it sensible for colleges to stimulate demand through low or no-fee offers to individuals and employers alike.

Of course, changing direction takes time. An active fees policy will open increased funding, but only after time. You do not need to persuade trans-national corporations of the value of investing in people. But many small and medium-sized firms do not spend scarce money on training and development. Nor do lots of self-employed people. The Government's Employer Training Pilots are designed to stimulate employer engagement - to use public funds to kick-start a learning culture at work by supporting staff to develop those skills employers identify as critical to future success.

But the early evidence of the pilots suggests that it is large multi-nationals who are quickest to respond to the opportunities of the pilots. There is still a need to persuade many small firms to join in and, once there, to pay more for training. The level 2 (GCSE-equivalent) entitlement currently being piloted in the north-east and south-east regions was another bold commitment to invest in those people who have done the least learning in the past. It complements the Skills for Life strategy the Government adopted to support the learning of literacy, language and numeracy, and can usefully learn from that strategy.

The Skills for Life strategy has been impressive. The Government's first target of 750,000 people passing a national test by 2004 has been achieved.

More importantly, 2,400,000 people have been helped to improve their skills, including many for whom the threshold of the national tests has been set too high. What impressed me about the strategy was the recognition that the tests would only engage a minority of the participants at any one time.

The level 2 target needs the same approach. There will be many, of course, who can sprint to the full qualification in a purposeful way. Others will take time to gain the confidence and sense of direction. For them, the maintenance of a range of "first steps" provision is vital.

But again, evidence from the pilot areas suggests that first steps or other further education is at risk; if not from LSC planning decisions, then from the decisions of local institutions such as Sunderland or Bradford colleges. Tight budgets and tough targets lead to narrow curriculum offers, and a focus on those easier to reach.

These pressures do not make for easy judgments for providers, planners or ministers. We need the new initiatives in the Skills Strategy and the pre-budget report, but not at the expense of the infrastructure for lifelong learning patiently built over the last seven years.

The UK still spends less on post-16 learning than most of its competitors, when you add private to public investment. Given the economic need for more adult learning, the case for greater investment is overwhelming. And if the Government remains wedded to voluntarism for employers, more needs to come from the public purse.

Alan Tuckett is director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education

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