The government’s plan to improve adult skills is backwards

The number of people undertaking adult training continues to fall in areas where it is most needed, pushing a key part of the government’s capacity-improving agenda even further out of reach.

The Government is aiming for 200,000 more people to be successfully completing quality vocational training in England every year by 2030, fueled by 80,000 more people taking courses in parts of the country where fewer people are highly qualified, according to the Leveling Up whitepaper published in the UK February.

However, figures from the Department of Education show that the level of education in these areas has declined since Boris Johnson’s Conservative government came to power.

Only in five of the least-skilled areas (which the government defines as parts of the country with the lowest proportion of people with a Level 3 qualification in 2019) did the number of people who completed skill training register one in the most recent year of the data Rise.

In Stockton, Redcar and Cleveland, Middlesbrough, Hartlepool and Rochdale, more adults completed education in 2020/21 than in 2019/20. All other less qualified areas saw scores fall, with Leicester and Blackburn with Darwen seeing numbers fall by more than a fifth.

In the last two years (between 2018/19 and 2020/21) the picture is even worse. During that period – which includes the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic – none of the least skilled parts of the country saw an increase in education levels.

Adult education and training has declined dramatically over the past decade of the Conservative government. While around 1.9 million adults completed a course in 2012/13, this number more than halved to 860,000 last year.

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Chris Morgan is Director of Educational Employability and Skills at adult education charity The Workers’ Educational Association (WEA). He said headlight that while the government’s recent focus on raising skill levels was welcomed, the long-term decline in adult education and training was primarily a funding issue.

“There are fewer offers, there are fewer providers, and that’s because there’s less funding,” he said. “Not only has the subsidy been reduced since 2010, by a quarter I think, but the subsidy rates don’t change every year, which means they are then spread more thinly. At 16 to 19 grants, it will be reviewed regularly and grants will be increased while adult education is funded on an activity basis.”

In most parts of the country — not just the least-skilled areas — the number of adults who have qualified for a skill has declined in recent years, which the government said is due to the Covid-19 pandemic .

In areas that the government says are most in need of additional training, the number of people completing courses has tended to fall more sharply, and initial figures from the first half of the 2021/22 academic year show that these low-skilled areas are not making a significant contribution have ground.

Morgan said the pandemic has disproportionately hit the most disadvantaged adult learners: “What we’ve seen is that it’s hitting the most disadvantaged hardest because they’re the same people who probably don’t have the equipment to go online to be able to learn. For these learners learning online, it’s not just the equipment, it’s the specification of the equipment to even run, things like a regular stable internet connection, not to mention the actual skills to learn online and adapt to log on to a computer. So we’ve seen across the country that our most disadvantaged communities have really had this multiplier effect on them from the pandemic.”

An Education Department spokesman said: “We have an ambitious mission to increase the number of people who successfully complete quality education by 200,000, fueled by 80,000 more people completing courses in the least skilled fields. Our investment, including £1.6 billion through the National Skills Fund over the next three years, is already having an impact. The number of people who have started training across England so far this year is back to pre-pandemic levels and thousands of people are taking the opportunity to upskill or retrain for free through one of our skills courses.”

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