John Hayes foreword to Skills for Sustainable Growth is very welcome. Learning should be about more than skills alone, should challenge orthodox assumptions and build a big society. I’m glad he says:
“We need to recognise that formal vocational training is not appropriate or needed by everyone. To help create a ‘big society’, we need to empower communities to develop the informal life-long learning opportunities in which they want to participate.”
This is excellent news from the point of view of informal adult education but, of course, the consultation is taking place in the context of the Comprehensive Spending Review and close scrutiny of every government budget. I think it is crucial that anyone interested in adult education looks at the consultation and responds to it quickly.
The consultation talks about ‘local leadership’ - a broad guiding coalition engaging local authorities, employers, colleges and universities, civil society organisations and others. This should pool resources and avoid duplication. We need to emphasise that the voice and influence of organisations working below the level of these agencies – particularly in the voluntary and community sector – must be able to influence this local leadership.
Because of this notion of ‘minimum contract size’ is crucial; any system needs to be accessible for voluntary and community organisations whose defining strength is often being small scale, local and innovative. This is part of the funding simplification proposals but we need to be sure that the big don’t squeeze out the small in any arrangement and that new providers can enter the system fairly and without excessive risk. The voluntary sector must be able to secure funding in an equitable way. I think we need to make sure that comes across in the consultation as it would help the minister’s vision.
Equally, the welcome simplifications to contract could leave part-time adult learning vulnerable to loss of funding or subject to inappropriate requirements needed for formal vocational training. It is clear that this isn’t the intention but we need responses to reinforce the need to maintain a separate funding stream for informal lifelong learning as a small but really vital part of the FE budget and to use it to empower communities and help disadvantaged adults.
Most of all, in times of austerity, we need a funding and policy framework that sustains adult learning, especially in the most disadvantaged communities. I hope many people will consider these issues and respond to the consultation to support John Hayes clear commitment to this work.