Adult and community education is providing a vital lifeline during the pandemic – but more funding is needed to help councils run extra courses virtually.
Councils across the country are doing everything in their power to support their residents throughout these unprecedented times, and what that support looks like has had to change in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
They are providing additional care and emergency food supplies for the vulnerable, more support for the unemployed and businesses, and delivering services in ways they haven’t before.
One such service is adult and community education run or commissioned by councils in communities nationwide.
On average, 600,000 adult learners walk through the doors of adult education centres every year. They offer a range of informal and formal learning from entry-level courses to professional qualifications, as well as interview support and confidence-boosting programmes, computer and ICT training, maths and English, to help more people, already in work, re-train, upskill or move up in the workplace.
They are unique because they often take a bottom-up approach to planning provision for educational opportunities for local learners where they live. Local responses to coronavirus have demonstrated how flexible, agile and joined up they can be, working with the grain of other place-based services including employment, regeneration, health and culture, and their capacity to add value to each.
Adult learning has the ability to transform people’s lives by supporting the most vulnerable – including the long-term unemployed or those out of work because of furlough, redundancy, ill-health or caring responsibilities – to upskill before they re-join the workforce.
“Adult community education matters, and is a more important lifeline than ever before”
As well as these economic benefits, it reduces isolation and loneliness and makes people happier, healthier, more confident and more capable – making places smarter and more inclusive.
Adult community education matters, and it is now, perhaps, a more important lifeline than ever before.
Investing in adult skills needs to be at the forefront of the Government’s mind now and in the aftermath of the pandemic. With unemployment expected to rise to 3.4 million – equivalent to 10 per cent of the country’s workforce – supporting hundreds of thousands of learners now to learn new skills and retrain remotely will be an essential part of the country’s economic recovery in the months ahead. That must include investing in local adult and community education services.
Central government funding for adult skills has already fallen by almost half since 2010 – which has coincided with a 3.8 million drop in adult learners. Just 33 per cent of adults are on courses or in training – a record low since figures began in 1996. This has meant that councils continued to face the prospect of reducing provision or winding down their adult learning centres altogether, even before COVID-19 hit.
Despite these funding pressures, councils have already made great efforts to help adult learners continue their education remotely, despite the pandemic. But the most vulnerable, many of whom cannot get online, are at risk of missing out through no fault of their own.
The Department for Education has already committed to providing emergency funding to colleges and schools that are financially affected by the coronavirus outbreak, to cover unforeseen costs, but no such support has been offered to council-run adult education providers.
Over-stretched councils cannot shoulder the unforeseen cost burdens of the additional support now required.
While the Government has committed to covering the costs councils incur as a result of the pandemic, there will be significant demands on this.
Instead, the Government should commit to provide council-run adult education providers with the same level of support as schools and colleges are receiving, at the earliest opportunity.
This would free up councils to make courses and examinations accessible online, including expanding online content to enable learners to take part, retrain staff for the new climate of online learning, and equip learners who need it with the necessary kit.
Some have already been able to do so, and it helps when decisions about funding can be made locally. There are also councils using adult education to support the coronavirus response.
However, not all will be in a position to shoulder the costs necessary to ensure that where courses continue, they can be delivered remotely. That’s why they should be eligible for urgent grant funding in order to scale up the number of courses they can deliver remotely and the support they provide their learners.
Adult education is a vital lifeline for learners on lockdown and will be even more important as the Government looks toward its economic recovery.
By failing to providing adult education providers with the same level of support as schools and colleges, our most vulnerable are at risk of being left in limbo.
The Government urgently needs to step up to ensure that councils receive the financial support they need to continue to deliver courses remotely and that our most vulnerable are not isolated from their online learning.
Community learning case studies
With support from the Greater London Authority, councils in central London are launching a Keep London Learning website to enable Londoners to see what online courses are available in their areas. This should help them to find employment and retraining opportunities; contribute to their communities and reduce isolation by promoting wellbeing, fitness and health; support their families; and continue to develop life skills to support them in the changing economy over the coming years.
Adult learners referred to Lancashire County Council’s adult learning service by Jobcentre Plus are being supported on a regular basis remotely. Support includes CV writing, online applications and mock telephone interviews. The council’s Employability Team is also working with major supermarkets and supply chain employers to scope out job opportunities for adult learners. Lancashire is concerned that a significant number of its learners live alone, and that the lockdown has had an impact on their mental health. As well as improving their digital skills, telephone support is crucial as many learners do not have access to the internet at home.
While developing its own online training package for volunteers in the care sector, tutors at Peterborough City Council’s adult education service are using their culinary skills to cook and deliver 140 meals a day to the homeless, adult learners and care leavers.
Adult education staff at Worcestershire County Council are using their skills to teach others how to make their own personal protective equipment from home.
Meanwhile, staff from Adult Learning Lewisham are helping NHS staff, by mobilising volunteers to make and deliver dozens of scrubs to local hospitals.