The post-18 review of education and funding has allowed all of us who have an interest in adult education to start to think afresh about what is actually needed in terms of funding, content and infrastructure.
However, although the debate and discussion has broadened from the original focus on how to solve the problem of ‘graduate loans’, very little time has been given to what adults really want.
The adult learners I most often come into contact with are those who don’t have a voice and often didn’t do well at school, yet have managed to make the first step into community learning – but for each one that has made that step, there are hundreds who have not.
The most inexcusable figures to come out of our work on the post-18 funding review is that only 1% of all post-18 spend is used to support adult learners who want to learn in their community and only 7% is spent on those who didn’t do well at school.
This just demonstrates that in this country, you really have only one chance, and if you do well at school, you are set up for life and the state will continue to invest in you. This funding imbalance needs to change. When an adult learner improves their basic skills, they begin to grow in confidence and look to move onto the next rung of the ladder. Typically, this will be a tentative ambition to follow a vocational subject in which they are interested. Often, this will not be aligned with any offer their existing employer is willing to consider, so they need support to find what works for them.
Research shows that the lower your skills level, the less likely you are to travel.
If you want to learn locally, you still can because, luckily in this country, we have still managed to keep (albeit at a reduced level) a local community education footprint. However, how would you know this?
There is very little national or regional promotion of individual entitlements. Plus, we seem to have a mystifying jumble of courses and learners are often confused about what is available to them. We need to promote directly to them and ensure clear progression routes.
Furthermore, when they are ready to progress, the current Level 2 offer is patchy and often not available at times that suit those in work; what is on offer is frequently just infilling into courses/classes for young people.
Fill the Level 2 Gap
Many of the apprenticeship standards are set at Level 3. T levels will be at Level 3, and the college sector struggles to provide anything in the evenings and at weekends for adults – so where can adults go?
This lack of a sufficient Level 2 offer makes progression difficult and often leads to learners enrolling on programmes that are just beyond them.
Therefore, we need to fill the Level 2 gap. Community education services have been keen to grow their offer, but they have been stifled by the present funding system which doesn’t include a mechanism for growth.
They are exasperated that colleges and providers who underperform continue to be rewarded and keep their existing funding levels. They want to support their local learners and want the post-18 review to recognise that a static funding system based on historical allocation is no longer appropriate.
What is needed is a responsive funding system that recognises providers who perform well and provides what learners want. As most of these services are in Local Authorities, they find it easy to work in partnership with other services like housing and health.
These education services and organisations reach into local neighbourhoods and, because they are not tethered to large buildings or fixed staffing, they can be very mobile and can go where the learners are.
They are ready to take up the challenge of supporting the 1 in 5 of the population who have literacy or numeracy issues and the many who need ESOL to support their full integration into the community and work.
A must do reform: Create a learner-led post-18 funding system
The government should create a learner-led post-18 funding system that invests in all adults equally and puts learners and future learners in the driving seat through an equal lifetime entitlement.
Recommendation 1: Give adult learners a clear progression route to Level 2
The government should work with Mayoral Authorities, Combined Authorities and Local Enterprise Partnerships to create clear progression paths from adult basic skills to Level 2 provision.
Recommendation 2: Review what is offered and where it is offered
Ensure that all communities have access to and knowledge on what is offered.
Recommendation 3: Expand participation in community education
Community education services should be expanded. The government should stop investing in failing organisations and, where there are such institutions/providers, redistribute the funding and consider alternative local providers who can accommodate existing legacy learners.
Dr Susan Pember, Director of Policy, HOLEX