Let's talk adult education

by Susan Pember

We go to the polls in less than a month.  

So far, the general election debate has focused on the funding of apprenticeships, the re-introduction of traineeships for 18-21 year-olds and a specific proposal to cut places in full-time higher education to expand post-16 apprenticeships. 

Yet there has been little talk about adult education.  

Indeed, the real travesty is the reduction in adult education courses which we know changes lives, facilitates learners into work and enables adults to be active citizens.  

The real funding travesty  

We all know that skills in England have been reeling from a 47% funding cut since 2010. But this overall cut masks two quite different trends.  

Public spending on post-16 apprenticeships has increased by £1.1bn in cash terms - from £1.6bn in 2017/18 to £2.7bn in 2024/25 - surpassing inflation. Some in the skills sector may question the allocation of this budget, particularly the emphasis on Level 6 and 7 apprenticeships, but overall resources have indeed risen.  

The real funding scandal lies in the severe cuts in the Adult Education Budget (AEB) which includes adult community learning. In 2017/18, at the start of the Apprenticeship Levy, the AEB was £1.45bn. Today, the AEB is still only about £1.41bn even when we include funding for Free Courses for Jobs. This is a significant real-terms cut when adjusted for inflation.  

Funding for Skills Bootcamps (£150m), Adult Learner Loans (£130m), Multiply (£80m) and adult learner loan bursaries (£40m) takes total funding on adult education to about £1.8bn.  

But spending on adult education of £1.8bn is still £300m less than spending on adult apprenticeships of £2.1bn out of a total of £2.7bn spent on 16+ apprenticeships. 

Critically, only a small proportion of post-18 funding in England is available at Level 3 and below through adult education.  

Overall, the cash outlay on post-18 further education, higher education, and adult apprenticeships is around £27bn.  

Just 7% is spent on adult education. Even less is spent on Level 3 and below provision after excluding funding for Level 4-6 qualifications through Adult Learner Loans and Skills Bootcamps.  

And let’s not forget a mere 2% of this £27bn is allocated to tailored learning for adults attending local community education and skills centres.  

The overlooked demographic  

There are a million fewer adults in learning - a national disaster that goes unnoticed because those affected have no voice. Many adults in England, particularly those who left school with few qualifications, struggle to find stable employment or progress in their careers.  

Without access to adult education and training, they are stuck in low-paid, low-skilled jobs. For these individuals, adult education provides a lifeline - a second chance to gain the skills and qualifications needed to improve their lives.  

Yet current funding priorities leave these learners without sufficient support. Existing programmes are often under-resourced, with limited availability and long waiting lists, creating barriers for those needing flexible, accessible learning options tailored to adult lives filled with work and family responsibilities.  

The ladder is broken with progression routes eroded and the stepping stones of Levels 1 and 2 no longer provided. Learners are expected to leapfrog into Level 3 without the skills and expertise needed to succeed, leading to high dropout rates in newly created free level 3 courses and bootcamps.  

More funding for adult education  

Investing in adult education is not just a matter of equity; it is also a smart economic strategy.  

A well-funded adult education system can help bridge the skills gap that many industries face, particularly in sectors like health and social care, construction, and technology. It can also contribute to social mobility, reducing inequality by providing more people with the opportunity to succeed.  

Adult education plays a crucial role in personal development and community cohesion. Lifelong learning fosters a culture of continuous improvement and adaptability, essential in a rapidly changing world. It empowers individuals to take control of their lives, support their children, engage more fully in their communities, and contribute to the economy in more meaningful ways.  

Policymakers in all government departments must recognise the importance of adult education and allocate resources accordingly. This means not only restoring funding levels but also ensuring that the funding is targeted effectively to reach those who need it most.  

Government departments should start by working together and pooling existing budgets to make funding go further.  

Adult education services, rated 97% good or outstanding by Ofsted, are agile and expert in meeting their residents' needs. They act as community anchors, drawing together funding from various sources for differing needs. Pooling resources at the government level and then allowing localities to determine what is needed would be less bureaucratic and more efficient.  

Community education programmes, vocational training, and flexible learning opportunities should be expanded and adequately resourced. Employers, too, have a role to play by supporting their workforce through on-the-job training and development programs.  

While apprenticeships and degrees are valuable, they should not come at the expense of those who were left behind by the traditional education system. By investing in adult education, we can create a more inclusive, skilled, and adaptable workforce ready to meet future challenges. It's time to give adult learners in England the opportunities they deserve.  

A month to put adult education on the agenda  

Adults in England deserve better. They deserve a well-funded education system that acknowledges their potential and provides them with real opportunities for growth and advancement. We have a month to remind those who will form the next government, whoever they may be, that adult learning pays.  

Susan Pember is Policy Director at HOLEX