In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, adult community education (ACE) providers and services have been incredible. Over the past two weeks, they have been busy in their communities adapting their activity and ensuring their diverse learner base is fully supported. They have created new opportunities and have moved many learners to online learning, kept open centres for high needs and vulnerable learners, maintained and expanded their creches for key workers, increased their online family learning facilities for schools to take part and redeployed staff to areas of high need.
But life could be made easier for these providers and their staff if there was clarity about their funding for the rest of this year and for next year. It has been helpful that the Department for Education has stated it will continue to make adult education budget monthly payments for the remainder of the year and that allocations for 2020-21 will have been confirmed by the end of March, with payments made as scheduled.
Coronavirus: Minister's letter to training providers
However, lurking in the existing rules are statements about tolerance and retrospective clawback which bring uncertainly over their funding. This leads to confusion about what they can spend (or not) and, most importantly, whether they can continue to pay their staff and subcontractor partners. There are also other budgets where there is little information, including funding for apprentices.
It's time for action
When providers were asked last week what could help them continue to function effectively, 96 per cent asked for reassurance over funding levels so they could keep their staff employed and a cessation of all unnecessary administration so that they can concentrate their time on supporting students and staff.
We appreciate how hard everyone is working in these unprecedented times and we are very grateful for the way the Department for Education has worked with providers and listened to their requests and concerns, but we do believe it is now time for action to ensure existing adult learners are supported in their learning and the newly unemployed have an advice and support system which can help them learn new skills and hopefully gain new jobs when this is over.
Although ACE providers are concerned about funding levels, that has not stopped them being innovative in creating new learning opportunities. ACE providers are often pivotal in an area, bringing together different services such as probation, drug rehabilitation and housing to work with the unemployed, and they are now boosting their efforts and working with the Department for Work and Pensions and Jobcentre Plus to provide an enhanced service to the newly unemployed and others being furloughed by their employers. This may come in different forms, covering everything from DWP referrals to online advice and guidance, to supporting job applications and skills needs analysis. Some are working with other services in their local authority and are deploying staff to support pressure points, such as manning telephones, delivering meals and providing staff as chefs for high-need centres.
Isolation and mental wellbeing
Another area close to the hearts of ACE providers is helping people overcome mental health issues. New online provision has been created to help with isolation and mental wellbeing. For example, one provider has developed a programme (starting in April) called Staying Well in Isolation. Participants will be able to join an online group run by a positive psychologist who is there to support learners. Others are developing online courses using Zoom, which are based around health and wellbeing, mindfulness, upcycling projects using items found at home, maths, poetry workshops and book review, foreign languages, papercrafts, chair-based exercises and family learning.
They are also working with each other. For example, new partnerships have already begun to be developed and a great example of this is the 12 Central London local authorities who have accelerated their joint work on maintaining learning for Londoners. They are developing an individualised education service, based on learner needs. Where possible, they have already transitioned programmes to online delivery, using Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Google Classroom, etc.
ACE services will continue to develop their online offer. They have one eye on the future and are already beginning to map out what will be the likely local need in the autumn. Many can see that there will be an increased call on their retraining offer, with a higher demand for digital skills, and they are looking to government to find the resource for that growth in demand.
Sue Pember is the director of policy at adult learning body HOLEX