Two Into One Won’t Go

Legislation omage

In this blog, WEA CEO Simon Parkinson highlights the need for an essential skills fund.

Adult education feels like it’s in one of those optical illusion puzzles at the moment. You know the sort where first of all you see a duck and then you look again and it’s a rabbit.

For adult education the first thing we see is the Prime Minister championing lifelong learning, a far-reaching White Paper and Bill for post-16 education and a new Secretary of State and Minister spending time with the FE sector just as much as with schools and universities. It’s a time for massive opportunity when adult skills has never been higher on the agenda.

Look again, though, and you see an emphasis on higher level skills and not entry level, colleges rather than other community providers, and younger learners more prominent than older. Community learning for adults over 24 studying anything below Level 3 is largely missing from the picture.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the Department for Education’s proposals for reforming the post-16 education funding system. Put simply, there are numerous funding pots as things stand and the DfE proposes to collect most of them together into a single pot – to be called the Skills Fund.

The rationale is that this would simplify the system and give providers greater flexibility and autonomy. They would no longer have to worry about moving funding between different budgets or finding that the grants they have are ring-fenced and not available when they are needed.

Sounds great.

Except when you look closer, all the reforms elsewhere in the consultation paper point towards supporting colleges and Level 3 qualifications.

While, in theory, all types of adult skills provision should be able to draw from the new Skills Fund, it is possible that community learning provision - which reaches successfully into areas of multiple deprivation in a way traditional colleges cannot - will lose out.

Like the junior partner in a corporate merger, the Adult Education Budget (which currently funds providers like the WEA) could be absorbed and disappear, while the National Skills Fund (which supports Level 3) could dominate.

This is why in our response to the Department’s Funding & Accountability consultation we have pushed back and suggested that rather than merging everything into a single pot, the system retains two – an Essential Skills Fund and the Technical Skills Fund.

Let me describe these in a little more detail.

The Technical Skills Fund is essentially a reframing of the current National Skills Fund (apologies for all the similar names). The National Skills Fund supports courses in technical subjects at Level 3 and also Boot Camps which enable learners to fast track their skills in work related subjects. So, we suggest highlighting the main purpose of the funding by putting the word Technical in the name (it could even be the Higher Technical Skills Fund).

The Adult Education Budget currently supports crucial provision for thousands of disadvantaged adults, often those furthest from the job market and studying at lower levels up to Level 2. It includes English, maths and digital skills and other courses which deliver essential life and work skills, including many which employers value such as communication, critical thinking and teamwork.

It is this work that we believe should be funded separately, to avoid it being overlooked and under-funded in the new system. We have suggesting calling this separate pot of funding the Essential Skills Fund, recognising its focus on employability outcomes.

It is important that the Essential Skills Fund and Technical Skills Fund are connected  for two reasons – to create those seamless pathways for students to progress through the levels but also because many community providers (including the WEA) offer courses below, at and sometimes even above Level 3, so they will need to draw from both Funds.

We understand that there are key principles underpinning the new reforms which need to be part of a funding system – such as focussing on outcomes and progression. We would argue that the system for funding community adult learning already provides this – look to the WEA’s recently published Impact Report for evidence of this. But it’s also true that there need to be new mechanisms which make the pathway to Level 3 clearer and straighter for both student and provider. We feel that this two Fund model – Essential below L3 and Technical above – achieves that.

 To have the majority of the funding going to higher level technical qualifications without also supporting the vital foundation work that community learning provides would create a hopelessly top heavy model with the most disadvantaged being left behind. It won't deliver levelling up, or the ambition to leave no-one behind.

By having two distinct pots, the Government, and others, will be able to see at a glance that they are getting the balance right.

Next – Why the overall level of funding for adult education needs to be maintained.