Isn’t it time we cancelled Adult Learners’ Week?

I mean, really, #ALW14, what is the point? It’s not like we need to stoke up demand to mop up bucket-loads of spare funding. Only the most incompetent provider is going to find it difficult to fulfil an Adult funding contract next year that has probably been cut by 15% for classroom learning. So why raise expectations that Adult learning services cannot possibly meet?

I woke up in the middle of the night a couple of weeks ago with a blog in my head, this blog. I had a dream – though granted, not a very inspiring one. Didn’t think anyone in my household would appreciate being woken to discuss it, so I got the iPad out to google it around a bit. Great minds think alike, and fools… wait until someone else has gone into print. First thing I googled showed me that someone had already written my blog, this blog, and got it published in the New Statesman. Months ago.

Jonn Elledge asks us to imagine Michael Gove announcing that he is about to cut a fifth off school budgets. You can’t imagine it. It would be political mayhem. And yet BIS had just announced that the Skills Funding Agency’s Adult Skills Budget (ASB) would be cut by roughly the same over the next two years. And this following a 25% cut to the FE budget in 2010. The announcement was met with sighs of relief and only the merest murmurs of disapproval. Bizarre.

It’s not as if the ASB was a fatted calf needing to be slaughtered. As Elledge points out, the average HE student brings twice as much income into their institution as an Adult FE full-time student. Schools earn around 50% more money from each full-time student than does a college with a 19-year-old learner. The money just doesn’t add up for Adult learning. There’s no real incentive to let anyone grown-up into your college at all.

So why was there such a muted reaction to the cuts? Partly, strange to say, it was relief. With other parts of the education budget ring-fenced and not easily reduced, there was a fear that the funding cuts for Adults would be even worse. Worse than 19%. Partly, it was recognition of the public finance world we are living in, now and for the foreseeable future. Other important and highly valued services have been reduced or changed beyond recognition. Why should FE be any different?

So isn’t it time we cancelled Adult Learners’ Week? The trouble is, even if you cancelled it, the real need and the real successes of Adult learning wouldn’t go away. It’s just that even fewer people would know about them. You can’t help but be moved by the stories that Adult Learners’ Week brings to your attention each year. Like the nominees and prize winners announced by David “you’re allowed to cry” Hughes at the Manchester Museum last week.

And if you’re aware of the wide range of work with Adults that goes on week after week in colleges and third sector providers, then you’ll know that learning makes a difference, not just for individuals and their families, but to the neighbourhoods or cities in which we all live.

This is not intended to be an advertorial for where I work, but I only have to look round at the Adult learning that happens here to fear what impact not doing it might have. I see hundreds of people resettled into this city, learning English as Speakers of Other Languages so that they can engage with the communities they now live in, support their children at school, and bring their skills and abilities to bear positively on their lives and on those around them. I see several hundred Adults with no prior qualifications, no prior attainment from school, becoming able to access graduate entry jobs, including medicine, by studying on a one year Access to HE programme.

I also see the impact that learning is having on individual adults: developing skills and self-confidence; breaking down barriers to employment; helping them break out of debt and isolation; overcoming mental health issues; not to mention relieving the pressure they are putting on the public purse. Learners here are drawn from the fifth highest percentile nationally in terms of deprivation. Adult learning is combatting generational disadvantage, lost opportunities and wasted talent. As it is near you as well, at your local provider.

The challenge that the budget deficit and public service reform agenda have put on us all is how to keep on doing this work “now the money has run out“. That challenge includes finding other money to do it with. It also includes joining up the different threads of what we can do for maximum impact. For example, it means embedding learning and employment skills pathways into the health and care agenda, making sure there are coherent referral pathways in place to meet the needs of the whole person (including learning), not just addressing symptoms.

So shall we cancel Adult Learners’ Week? Maybe I wouldn’t, not yet. There’s such a job to be done, and Adult Learners’ Week might be shining the spotlight that will help us see just how on earth we are going to do it.

About dp40days

A senior leader in Further and Higher Education, now based in Moray (pronounced "Murray") on the coast of the Scottish Highlands. (I know, I love paradox). We have more sunshine and less rain each year than my previous home in Manchester, and about fifty more distilleries too! You can find me on Twitter as @DP40days. Blogs so far have been mainly about work and travel but frankly, I've been a bit quiet recently. Maybe that's about to change...
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