Labour seemed to have won a significant victory when more than £2million in funding was restored to adult education services in Somerset. But how much of a victory was it really? As the dust settles after the battle, the future of community based adult education looks far from secure.
To recap: Somerset Skills and Learning says it needs £3.4 million to run adult education classes. It was shocked in September when the education and skills funding agency awarded it just £110,000. Classes were postponed and there was an angry outcry from Labour and others. And at the end of September, the grant was upped to about £2.5 million and SS&L said classes would be back on.
“Job done!” was the immediate reaction. But there were things to worry about straight away. And even more worries about adult education in Somerset in the longer term.
To start with, the money SS&L is getting is about a million pounds short of what it says it needs. And the funding is for this year only. At time of writing, two weeks after most of the grant was restored, it still isn’t clear exactly how many of the postponed courses will be starting. SS&L said it was assessing courses to see if the number of students made them viable.
And looking to the future, the language coming from the government gives cause to worry about adult education next year and in years to come. A letter to course providers from the department for education draws a distinction between ‘priority’ and ‘non-priority’ education – with community based adult classes in the ‘non-priority’ category.
The idea that some courses have a higher priority is a valid one. SS&L runs apprenticeships and vocational classes which are directly aimed at helping people to find work or to improve their working skills. For example, people who work in catering can do food hygiene courses. We can all probably agree that classes like this have an economic benefit and are very important.
The benefit of other classes is less easy to quantify economically. But they still matter. Retired people learning a language, or people studying the history of art might not be doing so to improve their job prospects. But there are real benefits to them and to society as a whole. Well-being, active minds and social inclusion are good things in themselves.
At this point it’s worth quoting an email from the further education minister, Anne Milton. She said: “Lifelong learning supports people to take control of their lives in a world of rapid economic and technological change. It gives people opportunities for progression and maintaining employment by up-skilling. It also gives those who have underachieved academically earlier in life the opportunity to update their skills and increase their earnings, and enables those who have been out of work to re-skill and enter employment. We have made arrangements to support providers, such as SS&L, by providing additional funds to be made available to support the adult education budget contract for service providers during the transition period.”
There are two things to note here. First, the emphasis is relentlessly placed on education which can be measured in terms of people’s ability to translate it into work. And second, there is the indication that we are in a transition period in adult education funding. It would seem that this is a transition from a broadly based system in which learning is valued for its own sake to one in which learning is economically driven. The ‘priority’ education might continue. The future for the ‘non-priority’ courses looks bleak.
So what is Labour’s position and what should our position be in future? First of all, we should make clear that this whole mess is very largely due to the imposition of Conservative dogma here in Somerset. Until two years ago, SS&L was part of the county council. When it was floated off as an independent non-profit company its budget ceased to be protected and it was at the mercy of a remote and unaccountable funding agency.
Labour should argue for local political control of education. Local control is not much good, though, if the will is not there at local or national level to have non-vocational adult education and to pay for it properly.
Labour should say that education is a good thing in its own right, for people of all ages whatever their economic circumstances. We should resist the box-ticking culture and support everyone’s right to learn.
Andy Lewis West Somerset Labour Party