Subtle art of the Pounds stretchers

2nd November 2007 at 00:00

So it's not just skills. Social cohesion and addressing disadvantage are making a welcome return to the stage, and widening participation is waiting in the wings for its dramatic and overdue comeback. The news of a possible rethink on funding for community-based adult learning is opportune.

Sustaining Adult Learning - Making the Money Go Further, a study undertaken earlier this year by Niace, the adult education body, for the Learning and Skills Council, identified some of the strategies organisations have been using to make the reduced public funding they receive go further.

While none of the strategies would be unfamiliar, taken together they capture something of the subtle and complex funding base community-based adult education has to operate within.

The study showed that providers are increasingly segmenting their programmes into three strands:

- A widening participation approach, targeting harder to reach learners, reliant on a high level of public subsidy for which very small or no fees are charged.

- A programme targeting primarily existing and frequently older learners, attracted by a more traditional model of adult education, viable with a medium level of public subsidy - and perhaps some other investment in kind or in time. Fees are charged to those able to pay.

- New programmes for adults, often younger and relatively well-qualified, who have had little contact with adult education, but who appear willing and able to pay fees more in line with the prices they pay for other leisure time activities or for courses to enhance their career development at work. The public subsidy for these was minimal or non-existent; higher fees were charged with fee concessions offered by exception and only where financial viability permitted.

The study showed that providers are doing everything they can to stretch the pot.

Providers have introduced small fees for the first time, where feasible, into widening participation and first steps programmes. They have also removed concessions for older adults. Wherever possible they are exploring their options for reducing their dependency on LSC skills-driven funding.

All are actively involved in a range of collaborative work with other organisations. Those in local authority structures are joining up agendas with other local government departments - children's services, extended schools, libraries, museums, regeneration, older people's services. The study found that their engagement with wider policy agendas could be at odds with LSC funding for a more narrow set of priorities. Community-based adult learning has much to offer the targets within the local area agreements for which local government has the lead.

What is clear is that the inventive way in which providers have been working to marry the best of business practice with the judicious deployment of public subsidy has been doing its bit in keeping adult and community learning going.

Marc Mason, chairman of the local authorities adult learning network LEAFEA, welcomed the Niace report: "I hope John Denham will have some good news for these providers - not just on reviewing the funding base for their work, but also in restating the value and purpose of this kind of learning in our society."

Annie Merton and Mick Murray are development officers of Niace's community learning team.

Join the discussion

Three conferences are being organised by the Niace, the adult education body, under the title "FE in the 21st Century: What Works for Adults". They will be held on November 8 and 29 and January 17 at the London Chamber of Commerce, 33 Queen Street, London EC4. For details, see

FE Focus is keen to provide a platform for opinions. To contribute letters or simply pass on views or ideas, email

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