The attack on adult learners: further evidence

My last two blogs presented evidence, taken from the National Adult Learning Survey, that adult learning in England is in trouble. NALS sampled participation in 2010, so conceivably the findings are out of date. However, the Skills Funding Agency’s latest figures suggest that the collapse continues.

SFA’s headline figure is that the total number of adult learners in government-funded further education fell by 10.7% in 2010/11. So for every ten learners in the previous year, one had vanished by 2010/11. Provisional data for 2011/12 suggest that participation may still be falling, but we have to wait until January to see whether this is the case.

Government has made courses leading to qualifications its priority for some years now. Given what we know from NALS, though, it is impossible to be surprised to learn that the number of people achieving a qualification fell even faster than the total number of learners, by 11.8%.

In another priority area, family literacy and numeracy, participation fell by 8.1%; it also fell, by 2%, in wider forms of family learning. This is damaging not only to the participants and their communities, but also affects the life chances of their children.

The SFA figures do contain some good news. The number of apprenticeships continues to rise, with above-average growth among adult trainees, and particularly sharp increases in the number of over-25s starting an apprenticeship. But most people will know that there have been questions over the quality of many apprenticeship schemes, with some evidence that employers are simply using the system to subsidise the employment of new staff or the upskilling of existing staff.

And there was mixed news in what used to be known as adult basic education. While the number of new Skills for Life learners rose by 5.8%, the number who achieved a qualification fell, by 3.1%.

If I were one of the many press officers in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, I would probably encourage Vince Cable to point to improving success rates. But if you reduce the total number of learners, by deterring the most disadvantaged and least highly motivated, then of course your success rates will rise.

And if I were one of the many press officers in the Scottish Government, I would encourage Mike Russell to note that these figures don’t cover adult learning in Scotland. But the Scottish Government did not support NALS in 2010, and doesn’t conduct its own research, so we have very little idea of what is happening to adult learners in Scotland. You might almost think the Government prefers to keep it that way.

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