A specialist case?

Legislation omage

WEA CEO Simon Parkinson considers the importance of confirming the WEA’s status in forthcoming legislation.

We know what a positive impact adult education can have and how special WEA students, tutors, members and volunteers are. But did you know that the WEA is in itself part of a special category of organisation? Or to be more accurate, a “specialist” type of institution.

Ever since the Further & Higher Education Act 1992, the WEA (alongside just over a dozen other providers) has had the status of Specialist Designated Institution (or more recently, Institute for Adult Learning, which is more descriptive).

The most important thing that this bestowed on the WEA was the eligibility to receive grant funding from government agencies in the same way as the rest of the further education sector, such as colleges. Grant funding has continued to be an absolutely vital part of our business model ever since.

This year, the Department for Education has set in motion some really fundamental reforms to the funding system, partly enabled by the Skills Bill which is currently passing through Parliament.

What has been very noticeable in the Bill - and in the White Paper and the consultation papers which came before it - is how little they all mention community learning. They certainly do not go into any detail about what reform means for Designated Institutions. In discussions with DfE we have been advised that the assumption is that whenever the White Paper or the Bill says “further education sector” that it also means SDIs.

When so much of our funding relies on being eligible for grants on a level playing field with other providers such as colleges, however, we feel that it is best not to make assumptions but to seek absolute clarity.

Recent experience has shown we are wise to seek this. In 1992 the grant funding covered by the new Act came almost entirely from central government (via its then funding agencies). Since then the advent of the Mayoral Combined Authorities has allowed for around 50% of the adult education budget to be devolved and, as a national organisation, this means that the WEA now has multiple funding arrangements with each of them, as well as with central government.

Every time we have entered into a new funding arrangement with an MCA, the question of legal status and eligibility has come up and each time we have found that the level of understanding and interpretation has been quite different. In some instances this has had a direct – and not always positive – effect on our funding.

So rather than leaving it to chance and assumption that the new funding reforms leave the WEA’s SDI status untouched and our funding eligibility unchanged, we are asking that the new Skills Bill spells this out (for all SDIs, of course, not just us).

We have already had some progress. As the Bill progresses through the House of Lords, we have written to peers to raise the question directly with Baroness Diana Barran, who is the Department’s Minister in the Lords. She has responded quickly to provide reassurance that the new Bill does not in any way change the SDI status as set down in the original 1992 Act.

Whilst this is immensely reassuring, we have asked for the new Skills Act (when it is published) to set this out definitively either in the text itself or at least in the accompanying guidance so that there can be no question around eligibility and status. This would be helpful not only for us but also for future arrangements with the MCAs (and it is entirely possible that new regional and local authorities may be budget holders in the future).

This focus on legislative detail may sound arcane but it is a good example of how sometimes the low profile of adult community learning can lead to difficulties. Because no one thought to spell out the implications for specialist providers we have found ourselves in a state of uncertainty. Further down the line this could have serious implications for our funding if the issue is not raised now. So we are grateful to the Baroness and to the Peers who have provided clarification and we will continue to request that future guidance (and legislation if necessary) leaves no room for doubt.