Adult learning and the European Social Fund -we need to plan for Brexit

Late last year, I raised the question of how adult learning will be funded once European structural funds no longer apply to the UK. This led me to send a Freedom of Information Request to the Department of Work & Pensions, asking for an estimate of how much funding was allocated to adult learning in the UK from the European Social Fund (ESF). The answer is that a lot of adult learning is funded in this way.

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Under current arrangements, European structural funds run for the period 2014-2020. According to DWP, a billion euros were allocated during this period for adult learning from  ESF Investment Priority 2.1 alone. This does not account for all support from ESF, as the reply makes clear. And adult learning is also supported through other structural funds, incuding the European Regional Development Fund, Leader, INTERREG, and EQUAL. But ESF provides the main route to funding for adult learning.

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From DWP reply, 24 January 2017

Unfortunately, DWP wasn’t able to answer two of my follow up questions. I was keen to know how much of the Investment Priority 2.1 allocation was devoted to (a) literacy and (b) adult English learning. Apparently it was not possible for DWP to isolate figures for these two areas of spending. However, it is reasonable to conclude that some ESOL and literacy is funded through ESF, and that it is probably a significant proportion of their total funding.

All this raises the obvious question of what happens next. In principle, there shouldn’t be any problem: the UK pays far more into the structural funds than it receives, so there ought to be money to spare to tackle the problems that the ESF seeks to address. But in practice, there will be plenty of other priorities, so we need to keep an eye on this issue.

In the meantime, I have sent a copy lf DWP’s response tothe following:

If you can think of anyone else who could helpfully see the DWP response, please let me know.

 

 

Brexit and lifelong learning after the European Structural Funds

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Withdrawal from the European Union is going to be complicated, not least for the future of adult learning. I’ve written previously about the relationship between Brexit and adult learning, but so far I’ve not really given much thought to the role of the Structural Funds, and in particular the European Social Fund, which provides considerable financial support for adult learning across the UK.

For the period 2014-2020, the UK was allocated €3.5 billion. While it is co-ordinated by the Department of Work and Pensions, much of it is handed over to other bodies for allocation; these include the Skills Funding Agency, the Big Lottery Fund, and the Scottish Government. And while ESF funding is allocated to all regions of the UK, it is worth noting that it is disproportionately sizeable and important in Wales.

The UK’s operational plan for ESF spending between 2014 and 2020 is available online here. Its priority areas explicitly include “activities to inspire and encourage lifelong learning and the consequentbenefits of learning”, with a particular focus on funding provision that promotes employability but does not duplicate existing provision or substitute for private funding.

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From the DWP’s Operational Programme for ESF 2014-2020

The activities supported by the ESF in the UK are remarkably broad, encompassing the Learning and Work Institute’s Festival of Learning, a range of programmes for women workers, and the governmment’s traineeship and apprenticeship programmes. And, above all, ESF helps to fund literacy, numeracy and English learning.

As for the future, the current funding round doesn’t expire until 2020, so there is time to prepare. In thinking ahead to whatever succeeds the Structural Funds, we need to make certain that adult learning is not forgotten. Ideally, the successor programe(s) in Britain will be more flexible and more learner centred, and less bureaucratically cumbersome, than the ESF and ERDF.

As for the future of the Stuctural Funds without the UK, my best guess is that the design work for the 2021-2028 programme has already started in outline. The real work of developing a draft will therefore take place with no UK contribution; and it will finally be negotiated by a European Commission and European Parliament that will look very different in political complexion and priorities to the bodies that agreed the 2014-2020 programme. I’m inclined to doubt whether the post-2020 programme will, then, just be ‘more of the same’.

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Does Britain need a new national institute for lifelong learning?

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The Institute’s membership forms are still listed in the URL as ‘NIACE Membership’

I’ve been participating in a lively email debate recently about the way in which adult learners and providers ought to be represented. The debate was triggered by the Learning and Work Institute’s announcement that it had appointed Stephen Evans as its new director, someone with considerable experience in the areas of employment and skills, but less well versed in some other areas of adult education.

One reply to LWI’s email came from a retired university adult educator who used to hold a senior position in the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education.While he remains a keen supporter of liberal adult education, he no longer wishes to continue his life membership of NIACE’s successor organisation.A number of other senior adult education supporters and professionals responded to his original message, some of them also resigning their membership.Some have even suggested that a new organisation is needed.
It has been an informative and thoughtful conversation, in which I’m firmly on the “remain” side.Partly this is because of the excellent work that LWI continues to do in support of adult educators of many different varieties, including those involved in areas such as prison education, citizenship education and literacies. I value the work LWI does in promoting adult learning at the main party conferences and in its lobbying, as well as its contribution to European policy debates.
For me, there is far more continuity with the work undertaken by NIACE than some colleagues are suggesting, and far less discontinuity. Of course there has been a shift, and it is clearly in the direction of skills and employability as well as towards younger learners.
But this shift has taken place across the board, including in the field of practice. Many universities have pulled out of extramural type provision, local adult education services have been slashed, and some liberal adult education providers have vanished.While new providers are flourishing, from private initiatives to voluntary and self-help providers, they do not necessarily identify with the adult education tradition.
A profound change in the field, though, is no reason for the adult education tradition to go off and die. I can’t see any reason why adult educators – and their representative organisations – should not engage with labour market training.
Perhaps I am partly influenced in this view by coming from a slightly different corner of our little forest from some other colleagues. My early days in adult education were spent at Northern College, which tried to weld together the best of the liberal tradition with social purpose adult education, and deliberately recruited working class students.
As others were very happy to point out, this separated us both from the numerically dominant mainstream of local authority adult education, and the culturally dominant world of the extra-mural departments. And when I moved to the new continuing education department at Warwick, working in the areas of access and second chance education, plenty of extra-mural specialists were happy to tell us that we were selling their tradition down the river.
So I’m used to hearing how crap employability is, usually by people in comfortable  employment themselves. And when the proposed merger between NIACE and the Centre for Economic & Social Inclusion first came up I was fine with the choice of partner (link). I’d known colleagues from the Unemployment Unit (CESI’s predecessor) from its early years, and had enormous respect for some of its specialists such as Dan Finn and Paul Convery. They undertook project work and research with marginalised and stigmatised groups – as did NIACE, particularly through its REPLAN team.
Over time the Unit evolved and changed, as did many other bodies. It merged with YouthAid in 2001 to form CESI, and it sharpened its focus on research. CESI struck me as an appropriate partner, and in the circumstances as a very good one. Others took a different view (see here for Stephen McNair’s critique). To sloganise a bit, unemployed learners and young disadvantaged adults are adult learners too.
And as Paul Stanistreet pointed out at the time of the merger, the circumstances were dire. Carrying on as before was not an option. First, the field was changed and continues to do so, and NIACE’s role was always to represent the field as it is (rather than as we would like it to be). Second, the national policy context changed and is shifting rather quickly as we write these messages; the context after 2010 was always likely to be much tougher for adult learning, with serious implications for NIACE. Third, and closely related, the money dried up. Member subscriptions and book sales won’t fund a national representative body, so the options are limited.
As some of you will know, I’m committed to and proud of the social and civic purpose tradition of adult education. It isn’t the only significant part of our field, nor should it be, but I’m glad that it survives and in some cases thrives. I don’t see resigning my LWI membership as in any way helping to strengthen and maintain that tradition, or even contributing constructively to the future.
And even if a new association is needed, it will have to appeal beyond the old adult educators like myself who look back yearningly to better days. It will also need to engage with colleagues outside England, especially in Wales where NIACE and now LWI play a major role.
I don’t think LWI is perfect, but it’s what we have. My preference is to work with it and help it succeed. One thing it needs to sort out soon is why it has members and engage in them in debate about what it would like them to do and where we all want the future priorities to lie. But it also has to get on with negotiating its place in a world that has become much less hospitable to an open, broad and generous view of publicly funded adult learning. And we shouldn’t blame LWI for creating that world.