Why adult education should be on Rishi Sunak’s ‘fix list

Amid the chaos of yet another exchange of power in Number 10, the release of another departmental consultation response flew well under the public’s radar.

Back in July (two Prime Ministers ago), the Department for Education (DfE) released a consultation paper on adult education funding reforms as part of its Skills for Jobs paper. The consultation sparked serious fears among the sector. In October, just two days before Liz Truss mounted a podium to resign before the press pack, the DfE published its response. It would proceed with plans to unify the adult education budget (AEB) and the ‘free courses for jobs’ scheme into a single “skills fund”, while removing 3,500 post-16 qualifications from its adult education programme, specifically courses at level 2 (GCSE equivalent) and below.

This painted a troubling picture for adult community learning, the biggest providers of level 1 and 2 courses and dubbed the “jewel in the crown” of adult education. When implemented, only courses that lead directly to jobs or higher qualifications will receive funding and ‘strengthening communities’ will be removed from community education’s remit – leading to the loss of thousands of foundation courses for adult learners.

Then-Skills Minister, Andrea Jenkyns, claimed the Government was “simplifying and strengthening the qualifications system” to give learners “a clearer choice of the high-quality options available”. While some stakeholders will welcome a simpler qualifications system, defunding low-level adult qualifications that cannot lead directly to employment is a devastating blow to communities.

Adults who are furthest from qualifications and employment need the first rung on the education ladder. Removing these level 1 and 2 courses will rip the rug out from under some of the most disadvantaged people in the UK who aspire to education and social mobility.

Rishi Sunak stepped up to the plate with a promise to ‘fix’ things – and like Boris Johnson and Theresa May before him, he has since declared education and skills as the silver bullet. If this is to be his secret weapon, then saving adult education from the DfE’s plans should be a top priority.

Adult education on rations

Reversing public spending cuts is hardly an attractive proposition for a Government desperate to rein in spending and regain economic credibility. But truthfully, adult learners who don’t attend university have long been short-changed by the current education system. The IFS Deaton report on education inequalities found a “dearth of second chances” for adults. Outside universities, funding for classroom-based adult education has halved in the past decade, along with the number of adult learners. The same period saw a 50 per cent drop in the number of adults taking level 2 and below, with no corresponding rise in GCSE attainment levels.

Yet, while several politicians, including Sunak’s predecessor, have pledged to improve literacy and numeracy outcomes in schools, voters are still waiting on a plan to support this foundational learning as adults.

Focusing on children makes a certain sense from a strategic communications standpoint. The public feels naturally protective of children. It can be tricky asking them to empathise with disadvantaged adults, whose circumstances are too often unfairly attributed to personal failing. Ironically, it’s most often disadvantage during childhood that leaves adults struggling: students achieving just one grade higher across nine GCSE subjects increase their lifetime earnings by £207,000. The obvious key to breaking this cycle is adult education.

Adult education is the key to social mobility

Unfortunately for Sunak, successive governments have defunded adult education and failed to make policies for the future. Protecting adult education from further cuts isn’t just good policy: it’s damage control.

For starters, making new cuts to low level adult qualifications is perhaps a misstep, given almost two in five young people don’t have a level 3 qualification by the age of 19. The evidence shows many of them will not progress to higher levels of study. If they wish to pursue higher study later in, the DfE’s changes will give them considerably fewer chances to do so as adults.

The long-term consequences of neglecting lower level qualifications can be seen in the evaluation of the Government’s ‘Free courses for jobs’ scheme, where more than half of providers reported applicants did not have the required level 1 or 2 qualifications needed to undertake the level 3 course.

What’s more, the disadvantage gap has widened to a chasm – the highest at A Levels since records began and at a 10-year high for GCSEs. The students who fall in, through no fault of their own, both need and deserve the safety net of adult education to help them make their way out. Without access to school-level qualifications, including literacy, numeracy and digital skills, adult learners can have little hope of achieving social mobility and ‘lifelong learning’.

Finding a way forward

In order to support social mobility and a quality UK labour market ripe for investment, the new Prime Minister must act fast.

Fortunately, the Education Committee’s Adult skills and lifelong learning report is an excellent first point of call, recommending the development a clear national strategy on adult education.

Continued devolution of the AEB will also help local authorities help tailor their education offering to their needs and encourage regional investment by offering a more skilled worker base. Both the IFS and Education Committee reports also identified the complexity of pathways to and between vocational, community and tertiary courses. But rather than axing 3,500 qualifications, working with local authorities to provide clear and relevant information about courses may prove more successful in attracting learners than substantially limiting their options.

Finally, the Government must scrap the DfE’s changes to further education funding, which narrows the remit of community education to provide pathways to higher qualifications and employment and remove the goals of improving health and wellbeing and developing stronger communities.

Breaking free from the employment trap

By bringing adult education into its ‘Skills for Jobs’ scheme, the Government has fallen into a common trap that will hinder successful policy in this space. It must break free from the notion that employment is the sole measure of success.

Tying funding to employment outcomes places unnecessary limits on provision and dismisses the well-documented social, economic and health benefits of adult education: boosting social cohesion, community involvement, democratic participation and social mobility. These benefits are difficult to demonstrate or ‘sell’ to voters, but they are needed now more than ever before.

Recognising and defending the immense social and economic value of adult education takes courage, especially in a time of fiscal uncertainty and plummeting public confidence in Government. But the truth is that only substantial investment in communities will mitigate the worst effects of the current crises and fortify the nation against a looming recession.

This is a golden opportunity for the Prime Minister: to strengthen communities, invest in people and champion lifelong learning. Every learner, no matter their history, must get their second chance.

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