inTuition taster: Heart of society

Adult community education helps to bring local communities together, improving mental health and reducing pressures on services, as well as assisting people into employment. David Adams takes a look at a sector that is thriving, despite considerable pressures.

two students in adult community education learning

Adult community education (ACE) is an integral part of the wider Further Education (FE) and Skills sector. According to data from sector body HOLEX, released in December 2023, some 328,690 people took part in community learning in 2022-23, up from 304,420 the previous year. It’s the third year in a row in which numbers have increased after a significant fall during the pandemic (just 243,680 took part in 2020-21), although this remains well down on the 502,070 learners reported in 2017-18.

Many learners are seeking qualifications at Level 2 or below, but they may have enrolled on courses for any of multiple reasons. Some may have failed to prosper in full-time education, often in part because of undiagnosed medical conditions. Some are non-English speakers taking ESOL classes. Others are parents improving their literacy or numeracy skills so they can support their children at school. Learners come from all age groups too; while the majority (173,250) are aged between 25 and 49, some 133,630 are aged over 50, HOLEX’s figures reveal.

Some may be learning new skills to further or change their careers. But the sector also serves SEND learners, leisure learners and people who enrol on non-qualification-linked courses to build up their confidence as they recover from difficult phases in their lives.

For many people, ACE is a gateway either to a better job or further learning. Research from the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA), a national provider of ACE and other education and training, shows 42 per cent of its learners go on to find a new job or to enrol on a FE course, although this will not always be the main aspiration for many, such as ESOL learners.

Provision is delivered by hundreds of different organisations, including local authorities, college groups and charities, and in thousands of different venues. Around nine out of 10 ACE providers or organisations have been judged as ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted, including 97 per cent of those inspected during the 2022-23 academic year.

Around 11 per cent of the 205,200 people who work in FE and Skills do so in ACE, according to the government’s Further education workforce report published in August 2023. The sector boasts a notable higher percentage of teachers compared to other roles such as administrative staff or managers than other sectors, and almost three-quarters (74 per cent) are female.


Making a difference

Whoever is learning and teaching, ACE is always rooted within local communities, generating direct and indirect benefits for those communities and our wider society, as well as for individual learners. Those knock-on effects include a lessening of demand for public services, including the NHS, and improved community cohesion.

“Community education is more important than just giving people practical skills – it’s about building a community,” says Sue Pember, policy director at HOLEX. She points to young parents making friends at classes that help them improve their reading and literacy skills so they can help their children with homework.

Nicola Hall is director of curriculum innovation and partnerships at Lancashire Adult Learning (LAL). Previously run by Lancashire County Council, LAL became part of the Nelson & Colne College Group in 2016. It serves more than 10,000 learners at over 300 different venues, in partnership with about 300 other organisations, including local employers and public sector bodies such as the county’s library and museums services.

For Hall, it is the depth and breadth of the sector’s impact that makes a real difference, “whether we are supporting someone finding employment, helping 82-year-old Fred get himself online to book a doctor’s appointment, or helping parents support their children at school through family learning”.

Sarah Haworth, head of curriculum for health and wellbeing, horticulture, family learning, art and humanities at LAL, notes that one of the most important effects of ACE, and non-qualification-based learning in particular, “is that it reaches adults you wouldn’t necessarily find stepping through the door of an FE college. Some may have quite chaotic lives. It gives them an opportunity to step back into education.”

Katie Easey, director of education: community learning at the WEA, agrees. “An emphasis on skills is important, but isn’t the whole picture,” she says. “Lots of learners are a long way from technical skills. You need to get their confidence up significantly just to get them through the door.”

Yet this part of the FE and Skills world remains widely underappreciated and underfunded. “There’s been significant underinvestment in adult community learning and it has a relatively low profile,” says Easey. “It’s to the credit of colleagues who work in this sector that the quality of learning provision is not diminishing. But there needs to be a recognition of the benefits to the wider community and other public services.”


Tailored learning

There was huge concern across the sector when the Department for Education’s 2022 Skills for Jobs white paper seemed to ignore many of the wider benefits of ACE and of non-qualification-based learning in particular, such as improved mental health and wellbeing or benefits to communities, in favour of focusing on learning activity that delivers direct economic benefits.

Following intense pushback from the whole FE and Skills sector in the consultation to the white paper, the government has announced a proposal to rename non-qualification provision as “tailored learning”.

In its July 2023 consultation response, it acknowledged “the wider benefits … tailored learning can bring”; and specified a range of objectives for community learning and/or tailored learning. These include improving individuals’ confidence, health and wellbeing, and developing stronger communities. ACE providers will be able to use a proportion of funding from the Adult Skills Fund to finance tailored learning, and providers will then be able to decide how to use those resources.

Pember says this shift in emphasis was “warmly welcomed” by the ACE sector. Jane Taylor, head of service for employment skills and learning at Bristol City Council, notes with approval the appearance of “confidence, being an active part of the community [and] health and wellbeing” among acknowledged possible outcomes.

“Those outcomes should also enable us to get some benchmark data on the impact of community learning, which we’ve never really had,” she says. “That should help us make an even stronger case [for funding].”


Under pressure

Funding for ACE, though, has been shrinking in real terms for a very long time. The budget for community learning has effectively been capped since 2010, while costs have all risen continuously.

In some parts of the country, this has also been complicated by devolution. In England, funding either comes via the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA), the Greater London Authority (GLA) or the various devolved mayoral combined authorities (MCAs).

“We’re seeing a much more fragmented funding landscape than ever before,” says Easey. “That risks a postcode lottery for provision. It is increasingly complex in terms of what you can get where, which is difficult for learners to understand and us to administer.”

Some providers have benefited from devolution, as has Bristol Adult Learning, since the West of England Combined Authority was established in 2017. “We were really nervous about what might happen, but we’ve seen growth in our funding and [the Combined Authority is] very supportive of community learning,” says Taylor. “But I think we are very fortunate – across the country it is a mixed picture.”

Funding shortfalls may also mean staff morale is undermined by salaries set at levels that are usually below those of teachers working in FE colleges or schools. “Just like everyone else, our tutors are facing challenges around the cost of living,” says Arinola Edeh, principal and head of service at Westminster Adult Education Service (WAES) (see Westminster Adult Education Service). “Our people love what they do, but potentially we have a challenge in terms of recruiting and retaining high quality staff.”

She also fears a future loss of expertise as older teaching staff reach retirement; the sector already has a vacancy rate of 6.3 per 100, the Further education workforce report finds, compared to just 1.4 in colleges. There’s also an alarming gender pay gap, with a 17 percentage point gap between males and females. Some teaching staff appreciate the flexibility of working part-time – around half the workforce operates in this way, according to the report – or on a sessional basis. They may have other jobs or responsibilities, while some are retired or semi-retired teachers who want to contribute to education where and when they can. But many in the sector argue that teaching in ACE should be seen as an important career in its own right – and that staff deserve to be invested in as they seek to develop their skills.


Future vision

HOLEX has a long wishlist for ACE. It would like to see the government prioritise basic and Level 2 adult education and provide a five-year funding settlement, aligned with a strategy for genuinely lifelong learning and backed with an awareness campaign to publicise the value of this sector. It wants better co-ordination between the different parts of government that would benefit from that strategy, reducing problems such as providers needing to achieve different objectives in line with impact monitoring by different government departments.

“Everyone who works in this sector is passionate about it because it makes a difference,” concludes Easey. “We need more money in the sector, and more recognition of the contribution it makes. It’s a fantastic sector and we’ve got to get better at saying that.”

In focus: Westminster Adult Education Service

Arinola Edeh, principal and head of service at Westminster Adult Education Service (WAES), is a strong supporter of the role adult education can play in society and people’s lives. “It’s so rich, in terms of the diversity of the offer, the impacts we have that take people back into their communities, and other outcomes like supporting older learners so that they can be healthy and less of a drain on the NHS,” she says. “It’s reducing inequalities.”

More than half the learners served by the organisation are either unemployed or on a low wage, and two-thirds come from the most deprived council wards in Westminster and London. ACE is delivered by WAES alongside other adult education courses, which helps generate useful financial efficiencies.

“It’s about being in the heart of those communities,” says Edeh. WAES has three learning centres of its own, but also delivers community learning in schools, libraries, community centres and employers’ premises. “We’re going into venues that are familiar to people,” says Edeh. This is vital, she adds, because we should not underestimate how intimidating educational institutions are for some adults.

David Adams is a freelance journalist

Image credit: Nelson & Colne College Group

Cover Intuition Summer 2022

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