Collab Group Statement on Adult Education

Introduction

Adult education is vitally important, but overall participation is currently at its lowest levels in over two decades. Publicly funded adult education and skills make a vital contribution to many other public policy agendas. Investment in adult skills boosts economic productivity and growth. Achieving qualifications is associated with higher earnings and an increased likelihood of being in employment. Adults who learn are more likely to be healthy and happy. Nevertheless, adult participation in publicly funded further education fell from 3.2 million learners in 2010/11 to 2.2 million learners in 2017/18. Taking urgent steps to reverse this decline should be a top priority for the next Government.

Limits to eligibility for adult funding mean that important skills needs cannot be met. Changes to the rules on funding for level 2 and level 3 qualifications resulted in sharp falls in the number of adults undertaking courses. This represents wasted potential, both for potential learners and for the economy. The next Government should fund an entitlement for adult learners to free first qualifications at both of these levels.

Inflexibilities in adult funding result in inefficient use of resources and undermine the financial sustainability of colleges. The rules that determine how adult education and skills funding can be used and who is eligible for what courses are too complex and rigid. Single year budgets make it harder for colleges to plan effectively and to use funding in ways that best meet the needs of learners and employers. The next Government should work with colleges and other providers to put in place a more flexible framework, including multi-year budgeting.

Skills devolution is an opportunity to make the system more efficient and flexible - but it may not achieve this potential, if it is not implemented well. Responsibility for around half of the Adult Education Budget has just been devolved to six mayoral combined authorities and London. This represents an opportunity to align adult education and skills more closely to the needs of local communities and to local industrial strategies. But there are also risks. The next Government and local stakeholders should work collaboratively to ensure that skills devolution is implemented effectively, and that lessons are shared across the whole system.

It is on this basis that we propose the following asks for the next Government.

  1. Remove the current age caps, so that a first level 2 and/or level 3 qualification is available free to all adult learners, whether they are in or out of work. Changes to funding rules for adult learners led to sharp falls in participation in adult learning at these levels. Funding should be provided to enable substantial growth from current volumes.

Why it matters

Analysis has shown that both level 2 and level 3 qualifications lead to increased earnings and an increased likelihood of employment. The recent falls in participation represent a substantial waste of economic potential and a reduction in opportunities to learn and progress, for many adults who have not yet attained these qualification levels. The pace of economic change requires support for lifelong learning, including reskilling for people at risk of redundancy.

  1. Change the allocation process for the Adult Education Budget to give colleges more flexibility and in particular, move from annual allocations to allocations for a three-year period. This would enable colleges to respond more effectively to local demand and undertake more effective planning.

Why it matters

Currently, annual budgeting and complex rules on learner eligibility tie colleges' hands, making it harder for them to respond to demand from learners and employers. Despite tightening budgets, these inflexibilities have often resulted in underspends, representing lost opportunities for learning and contributing to significant underspends against the total Adult Education Budget in recent years. Three year budgeting would help providers to tailor their offers more closely to local demand, take a longer term approach to curriculum planning, develop multi-year solutions for employers and progression routes for learners, and maintain their financial sustainability.

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