On Monday 27 February, 200 people packed into a Parliamentary committee room  to witness the launch of the Save Our Adult Education campaign, led by FE Week. The aim is to highlight the crucial role that adult education plays, not just in meeting the skills needs of the economy, but also as a catalyst for social mobility.

The campaign has three specific goals. The first is to create a coherent strategy for adult education that “joins up the dots”.  At the moment it falls between the Department for Education on the one hand and the Department for Communities and Local Government on the other. As a result, it gets lost between the drive for more grammar schools and the priorities of local authorities. The second goal is to provide maintenance grant loans for adult learners in further education. (By ‘adult’ we mean anyone aged 19 or over.) These are already available for mature students in higher education. The third – a more immediate concern –  is to write of any debts incurred by people who took out  Advanced Learner Loans to pay for education or training through organisations that have gone bust. This has been provoked by the demise of John Frank Training which has left hundreds of students unable to complete their course, with debts of nearly £9000 in many cases.

The campaign is backed by leading MPs. Speaking at the event were the current FE and Skills Minister Robert Halfon, sharing a platform with Labour MPs Gordon Marsden (Shadow HE, FE and Skills Minister) and David Lammy  who led the recent Commons debate on adult education. Joining them were Ruth Spellman, Chief Executive of the WEA (Workers Education Association) and Susan Pember, who heads up the adult and community education organisation HOLEX.

Lammy, who recently called for a return to widespread “night schools” in a House of Commons debate, spelled out the dismal facts. There are around 1.5 million fewer adults aged 19 or over participating in further education than there were during his stint as skills minister in 2007/08, when the figure stood at 3.75 million. He said: “Many people across the country in their 30s and 40s can’t afford to leave their job and go to university. They need to retrain through adult education.”

Twenty years ago almost every further education college and adult education institution in the country provided a broad range of part-time day and evening classes. Some lead to academic qualifications such as A levels and GCSEs  - aimed mainly at ‘second chance’ adult learners. Others focused on vocational and professional qualifications, the basic skills of  literacy and numeracy, foreign languages and an array of leisure-based courses, from art history to yoga, that had no particular objective other than enriching people’s lives. Take a look at any further education college and adult education institution website and you will notice that most of these have disappeared. Why? Because they are not perceived to have direct links to employability and therefore no longer attract public funding.

For a decade or more flower arranging classes were singled out as an example of why the public purpose should not subsidise leisure activities for the idle well-to-do.  Despite evidence showing that floristry – along with dozens of other leisure activities – had provided new and profitable businesses for many career changers, the blinkered decision makers in the Westminster bubble insisted that the so-called “fluffy” courses were not deemed worthy of funding.

The result has been that funding for adult education has fallen year on year for the last two decades, fees have risen and numbers have dropped like lemmings.

Speaking at the launch Susan Pember said: “It’s really wrong now that we don’t as a society understand the benefits of adult education. We know as educators that it works. It improves not just productivity, it helps to improve health …We need a proper cross-government adult education strategy that lasts 20 years.” Ruth Spellman added that “the idea that education is just about under 19s is outdated.”

There are some signs that the mood is changing. The Government’s industrial strategy (launched at the end of January) acknowledges a “growing challenge”, with training for older people, along with proposals to improve adult education and facilitate affordable lifelong learning.

Gordon Marsden pointed out that this is the first time that adult education has found its way into a government green paper.  

He said we needed to look at adult education as a whole, instead of in separate silos. “The worlds of FE and HE are morphing … The government has got to get its head around this and join up the dots.” One step towards achieving parity of esteem with higher education would be to extend maintenance loans to further education, he added Another is the long overdue creating of a credit accumulation and transfer system that would enable people to build up credits from different institutions that led to a qualification.

Robert Halfon, representing the Government, wants adult education to be higher up the agenda with an enhanced prestige. This means tackling the two “ugly sisters” of snobbery and ignorance about the ”Cinderella sector ”. He stressed the key role of adult education in social mobility and providing an anchor in the community, saying: “Lifelong learning supports people to take control of their lives”.  Bravo.

To support the campaign use the twitter hashtag #SaveOurAdultEducation.

More information here.

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