The Tories have presided over a 42% cut to council adult education spending in England, NationalWorld can reveal, as Boris Johnson outlines plans to use skills training as “rocket fuel” to level up the country.
The Prime Minister used the Queen’s Speech at the opening of Parliament on Tuesday (11 May) to outline how his Government will bring forward new legislation to “revolutionise” education and training for older teenagers and adults.
“We know that having the right skills and training is the route to better, well-paid jobs,” Mr Johnson said ahead of the speech.
But analysis of government data by NationalWorld has exposed how Mr Johnson’s party has overseen a steady decline in spending in this area by local government, one of the key providers of mature learning.
Department for Education (DfE) records show spending on adult and community education by councils in England fell by 21% between 2013-14 and 2019-20, from £395 to £311 million.
And when adjusted for inflation, the real terms spending drop rises to 42%.
Four-year streak of budget cuts
This takes into account a £10 million funding boost between 2017-18 and 2018-19, when a four-year streak of budget cuts ended.
Spending was likely higher still when David Cameron brought the Conservatives back into power in 2010, but the figures prior to 2013-14 are not directly comparable.
According to the figures, 25 councils had reduced their spending to nothing by 2019-20, while three more slashed funding by more than 90%.
It came against a backdrop of cuts to central government funding for councils, which local leaders said left them having to make swingeing cuts to services.
The spending includes adult community education (ACE), as well as additional funding for family or other community learning.
Local government is not the only source of adult education, with colleges, employers, independent training providers and the voluntary sector all playing a role.
But Parliament’s Education Committee says council-run or commissioned services “provide a crucial entry point for adults furthest away from formal education or employment”.
The Local Government Association says the “lifeline” services are more important than ever following the Covid crisis to help disadvantaged people – such as the long-term unemployed or young people who are not in education, employment or training – into learning and work.
But councils need more funding to deliver the services, it said, with councillor Sir Richard Leese, chair of the LGA city regions board, adding: “We already know many adults will need to upskill and retrain for jobs, and even sectors, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, which demonstrates the huge importance of council-commissioned Adult and Community Education services which transform the lives of the 600,000 adults who use them every year."
Most council-run adult community learning providers offer courses at level 2, or GCSE equivalent or below, focusing particularly on English, maths and digital skills.
The Government has introduced a new National Skills Fund to help adults access free level 3 qualifications – the equivalent of A levels – provided they do not already have one, and will bring in a flexible loan system to fund study or training at universities or colleges for adults at “any point in their lives”.
Cllr Leese said: “While it is good news that the Government is supporting more adults to gain a level 3 or above qualification, there are many adults that lack a level 2 qualification, leaving them vulnerable to job losses and could make it harder for them to find secure work.”
Adult education provider Holex also said it was encouraged by the recent announcements but that more funding was needed.
“If this government is serious about levelling up and giving everyone opportunities to retrain they need to make available £5 billion pounds annually and they need to expand the offer to all adults including those that didn’t do well at school,” said Dr Susan Pember, director of Holex.
‘Where policymakers fear to tread’
Holex was recently commissioned by the Further Education Trust for Leadership (FETL) think tank to study how adult education could contribute to the levelling up agenda.
Dame Ruth Silver, president of the FETL, said more comprehensive and thoughtful investment in education at every level was key if the Government is serious about its ambitions.
“This is important in ensuring there are no rungs missing in the ladder of opportunity, particularly near the bottom, where policymakers often fear to tread – and about which, to be frank, they tend to know little,” she said.
The DfE was approached for comment.
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