A budget for stability

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In this blog, WEA CEO Simon Parkinson looks at what we would like to see – and what we should expect – for adult education from this week’s Chancellor’s budget.

In our last blog we looked at the sort of funding system we would like to see for post-16 education. But the shape of the funding system is only half the story – what we also need to know is how much is in it.

This week sees one of the most extraordinary Budgets ever. Second guessing what will be in it, against such a backdrop of uncertainty, is difficult, though the Chancellor has been trailing some of the headlines over the weekend.

Each year the Treasury asks for submissions to inform the Budget, offering organisations and individuals the opportunity to put forward ideas. I should add that this year it is not merely a Budget but a Comprehensive Spending Review – that is a Budget which looks further ahead (usually three years) and often sets out more ambitious plans. Alongside our allies in the sector we have made the strongest possible case for adult education and await the outcome with some trepidation but also some hope.

Lifelong learning and adult skills have a higher profile in Government policy than they have had for quite some time. On the back of the Skills For Jobs White Paper we can expect announcements relating to education programmes, such as the Government’s pledge to support more first time Level 3 qualifications, for example. The Chancellor has also indicated funding for more skills Boot Camps.

But it is far less obvious what we will hear about adult education. Will details emerge about support for qualifications below Level 3 or for community learning in disadvantaged areas? These elements have been missing from the consultation papers which have emerged from the White Paper and we have pressed civil servants and Ministers for clarity.

And we need to be realistic. The Institute for Fiscal Studies point to the possibility of the Chancellor having to make cuts of more than £2bn next year “including perennially squeezed areas such as local government, further education, prisons and courts”. And further education, and particularly adult education, is “perennially squeezed. To quote the IFS again, this time from their Annual Education report (2020):

Since the early 2000s, there have been large falls in spending on adult education. Spending is nearly two-thirds lower in real terms than in 2003–04 and about 50% lower than in 2009–10. This fall was mainly driven by the removal of public funding from some courses and a resultant drop in learner numbers, which fell from 4.4 million in 2004–05 to 1.5 million by 2018–19.

We have made a strong case to Treasury for the impact and importance of community learning but in reality we are not expecting that 50% drop to be reversed next week. After a long period of uncertainty, where budgets have been set one year at a time and student numbers have been atypical because of the effect of lockdowns, we have asked for something which brings a degree of stability.

We are calling for the adult education budget to be maintained at its current level for three years.

That would offer providers the opportunity to plan ahead with confidence, rebuilding the provision that has been disrupted during the pandemic, while also growing the best of the new approaches which were adopted in the last 18 months (when after all, the WEA and others never stopped delivering high quality courses).

We also recognise that funding for post-16 education is moving towards a more outcomes-focused and employment related model. Through our impact research we know that community learning already contributes significantly to progression into work as well as a wide range of other outcomes. It supports those essential skills which employers say they need – from basic English, maths and digital through to critical thinking, teamwork and communication skills. The balance of funding within the overall skills pot (which will eventually also incorporate funding for Level 3 technical qualifications) is important and must include enough for community learning.

The funding system for adult education is complex and it may well be that there are other areas of the Budget which offer opportunities. We expect to hear more about the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, for example, which will replace EU funding from next year.

And we will be looking carefully at all the Departmental budgets to see where there might be scope for future investment in adult learning - cultural programmes from the DCMS perhaps or social prescribing at Health. But mostly we will be looking out for news that the main adult education budget is at least holding steady.

We will report back here once we know the outcome.

Next time – Simon looks at the need to promote adult learning to new audiences

Image courtesy of Number 10)