Coalition ministers are clear about the value they place on adult learning. John Hayes says: "To build a bigger society . we must recognise the value of community learning . Learning is a powerful glue that can bind us together as families, as friends, as communities." Vince Cable recalls the impact adult education had on his mother's recovery from mental ill-health.
David Cameron agrees: "Learning isn't just about consuming chunks of knowledge to be able to do a job. It's about broadening the mind, giving people self-belief, strengthening the bonds of community . Over the past 13 years, so many learning places have been lost because they haven't been deemed useful." Hence the Tory proposal for pound;100 million for additional adult learning chosen by people themselves.
The vision is clear. The shift from target-driven utilitarianism is marked, and comes with promises to trust providers to respond to demand from individuals, communities and employers alike. Yet the consultation document A Simplified Further Education and Skills Funding System and Methodology shows how hard it is to shift officials' mindsets. Providers are encouraged to "focus their offer to learners and employers rather than trying to navigate the funding system", and the paper acknowledges the "need to balance the sensitivity to the diversity of learner and employer needs". Excellent. But the devil is in the detail.
It says there are two options for funding adult learning. The first gives providers a single adult-responsive budget, the second keeps a safeguarded budget for provision for adults outside the Qualifications and Curriculum Framework, (QCF), and shifts substantial volumes of work currently made under the adult learner-responsive (ALR) budget into the safeguard - but says nothing about why, or what this means for budget totals. The first option is a bad idea; the second begs questions and will only work if there is enough money attached.
Adults often lose out when budgets are tight, unless they have ringfenced protection. This is why then-minister Ivan Lewis adopted a safeguard in 2003 for adult provision at risk. But 1.5 million adults did lose out from unprotected FE provision between 2004 and 2007 as young people and employers were prioritised and, increasingly, only courses leading to approved qualifications were funded. In the proposed FE budget, ALR funding will still be for QCF-approved qualifications, leaving community- based provision vulnerable if the safeguard goes.
Central bureaucracy may be lightened, but diversity of offer will be challenged if four in ten providers are demoted to the status of sub- contractor, when many are small local providers effective at meeting the needs of marginalised groups.
The safeguard was initially set at 3 per cent of the Learning and Skills Council budget, then about pound;300m, and shrunk each year to its current cash-limited pound;210m. Without it, and a fund for innovation like the Transformation Fund, it is hard to see how ministers' vision can be realised, or local aspirations met.
The safeguard covers personal and community development learning for adults, neighbourhood learning in deprived communities, family literacy, language and numeracy, and wider family learning. Last autumn, online basics was added. Now it seems the uncertificated provision for adults is to be added, too. That might not matter if budgets are adjusted to take account of the new strands of work. But the document is silent about what is to be included, and how much cash is to shift. Yet if formal first steps means entry-level literacy, language and numeracy, that will be critical, since this work accounts for a major slice of the adult- responsive budget.
For adults, this consultation reads like business as usual with a few frills. We need a safeguard, certainly, but clearly defined and properly funded. Everyone determined to see a broad and inclusive provision for adults should respond and say so.
Alan Tuckett is director of adult learning organisation Niace.