At the WEA, we are always keeping a close eye on Westminster for hints and details about upcoming plans for adult education. Right now, is particularly an interesting time with the possibility of an election looming over all of us. 

That is why this week’s debate, which included MPs from across the political spectrum was especially interesting. Not only did it provide a platform for MPs to scrutinise the Department for Education’s spending plan, which will have a profound impact on all of us with a stake in adult education – but it has started to pave each party's manifesto for adult education. 

In this blog, I share my reflections of the debate and what we at the WEA would ask the Government to do to ensure that Community Learning is allowed to reach every adult in the UK.  

The landscape 

It’s no secret that adult education spending has seen dramatic cuts over the last few years, in fact according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, spending on classroom-based adult education is 40% below 2009–10 levels. 

While some MPs pointed to recent spending announcements that have seen some cash increases (though not at rate of inflation), these are well short of bringing funding back to 2010 levels.  

Not only is there less cash, but the distribution is tilted in favour of those who are naturally more academically gifted or have the family resources or life-experiences to help them succeed at school.  

The majority of funding is focused on formal learning in University/Colleges and Apprenticeships, with a recent focus to encourage select A level qualification. 

Only 2% of post-18 education and skills budget is allocated to adult community learning. A space where, Margaret Greenwood, MP for Wirral West and Chair of the APPG for adult education – rightfully states “adult education, largely takes place”. 

As such, there is very little which will support the 17% of working age adults who are without a Level 2 qualification or the 1 in 5 adults who struggle with maths and literacy. 

The debate 

This focus on formal, technical and higher education could be seen in the direction of the debate, which rarely touched upon community learning – though when it did, MPs were quick to praise the impact of community learning in their constituencies. 

Margaret Greenwood, who tabled the debate alongside Robin Walker MP for Worcester, passionately made the case for why more funding should be given to community learning in her opening speech. Ms Greenwood outlined practical steps that mirror many of our own positions at the WEA, which you can read about below.  

Similarly, Robert Halfon, MP for Harlow and a long-time advocate for community learning reiterated his five pillars (though this time an additional pillar seems to have snuck in) for adult education. He starts with ‘community learning’ as the first pillar, followed by careers support; learning for jobs; the lifelong loan entitlement, lifelong learning; and empowering local decision making. 

Many other MPs across parties also agreed, adding their support for lifelong learning and the part community learning plays in making this possible.  

While positive to see such unanimous support (especially in a debate in the House of Commons), there was little when it came to practical steps.  

The WEA position 

We are a leading adult education charity where community learning makes up the majority of our provision. It is no surprise, therefore, that we are wholeheartedly agree that community learning is vital and that we would look to see more investment – both time and money - in the area to deliver against the need we know is there.  

We would like to see more tangible steps such as: 

  • Invest more in Information, Advice & Guidance 

A key part of the Department’s Spending Review submission should be funding for improved Information, Advice and Guidance. This should particularly aim to drive up participation on courses below Level 3 and among adults from groups under-represented in education. 

The investment should cover: 

Improvements in existing infrastructure including careers advice and “mid-life MOTs” to support those seeking to improve their skills or retrain for longer working lives. 

National publicity campaigns along the model of the Skills For Life campaigns of 20 years ago. Many adults miss out on learning because they do not know what is available to them or what they are entitled to. Campaigns should aim to reach learners who could be eligible for fully funded courses or who would benefit from provision which is already within their local area. 

  • Provide additional financial support for disadvantaged learners 

Trials in some Mayoral Combined Authority areas have shown that by aligning eligibility for fully funded courses to the Living Wage rather than the Minimum Wage, then participation has increased. This echoes similar findings from earlier “low wage” pilot schemes supported by the Department. 

This change could support workers who are in jobs which may not be secure and where employers are less likely to fund in-work training. 

  • Create a national lifelong learning strategy 

England does not currently have a recognised national lifelong learning strategy. 

Having a strategy could set a framework for every adult in the country to have access to high quality adult learning throughout their lives and create a new culture of lifelong learning. 

A national strategy would complement local and regional strategies led by the Mayoral Combined Authorities and Counties, who will hold most of the adult education & skills budgets. Central government may wish to retain some national programme funding where it aligns with the national strategy and can be used strategically – though most funding should be devolved through local and regional authorities. 

A national strategy would also support the Department for Education to work more in alignment with programmes in other departments including DWP; Health, Levelling Up; Culture, Media and Sport; Science, Innovation & Technology. 

  • Ensure consistency of funding across devolved authorities for public sector bodies 

It is entirely proper that devolved authorities should have the freedom and flexibility in how they use their budgets. 

However, MCAs take different approaches from each other - and even from one funding cycle to another - in relation to funding criteria for providers. This means that some providers who have previously been grant funded for many years can find themselves being asked to tender for new funding even for core delivery. 

The WEA and other Institutes for Adult Learning have recently been classified as public sector bodies, alongside General FE colleges, following a recent ONS ruling. 

It would be most appropriate for all MCAs to treat all public sector bodies consistently and by adopting grant funding by default then there would be the possibility of planning with confidence at strategic and delivery level. 

This would also give learners the confidence that their trusted provider can take a longer-term view of their provision and not be aligned to short-term guidelines or outcomes. 

This year is our 120th anniversary and we are proud of our history of empowering learners and creating opportunity, supporting social justice. We believe with the above steps we will ensure that we can continue to do so, ready for the next 120 years.  

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Simon Parkinson, Chief Executive and General Secretary of the WEA
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About the author

Simon Parkinson

Chief Executive and General Secretary

Simon Parkinson is the Chief Executive and General Secretary of the WEA.