Further Education was once described as "the neglected middle child of education". It’s a crying shame that so much of its work goes unnoticed and so many of its heroes have no champion when what it adds to society is so valuable.
As Britain comes to terms with the worst financial crisis in living memory, Further Education must be allowed to play a key role in lifting the UK out of recession, particularly as people seek to refresh their skills and seek new employment. Few examples illustrate this better than the work of staff at Gateshead College who have helped retrain over 2,500 Nissan employees. On several occasions this year they have visited workers at their north east plant and held special classes.
"We worked with groups of employees from Nissan, and their supplier companies, who were under threat of redundancy and provided them with training in new areas of manufacturing, tools and techniques. It’s great for them because it gives them new qualifications and makes them more employable. It’s good for the company, too, because they now have a more highly skilful, and knowledgeable workforce," explains George Barrett, a development manager at Gateshead College and the man leading the course.
It is just one example of how Further Education can transform lives and local industry. With millions of adults looking to retrain during the economic downturn, it is more vital than ever that there is a broad range of courses for them to turn to. The government must consider carefully the impact current planned cuts to adult education will have. It is vital that any proposed changes for adult learning reflect the needs of learners, not just employers, and provide genuine opportunities for lifelong learning.
We should all be alarmed at the course cuts and rising charges that have seen 1.4 million learners' places lost from further and adult education in England since 2005. Charging for education in a recession is nothing more than the rationing of hope and will stop people from improving their lives. I draw your attention to the case of Emma Snell. Emma is a 33-year old mother of four from Grimsby, who left school with very few good GCSEs. By the time she was 18 she had two children and no idea of what she wanted to do with her life. Then someone suggested she try a local evening class. It was free for her to join and since then she has never looked back. Emma studied a variety of topics, from local history to art appreciation, and enrolled part time on a university course.
Emma is now a behaviour support assistant in Yorkshire. Adult education has, in her own words, transformed her life: "I believe that as a direct result of attending these classes I gained the confidence and interest in study to enter a more formal learning environment and then to go on to the work place. My career took off as a direct result of the confidence that I’d gained through adult education. I now work in a job in a school that I’ve worked hard to achieve."
Emma is not the only one to have benefited from her learning journey: "I have been able to show my children the importance of education as a lifelong process, not just during your school days. Maybe I’ve just been lucky that my teenage daughters haven’t gone off the rails like their mother did and have studied hard and achieved good grades, but I think that it’s largely because they’ve seen what education can do for a person. It does worry me greatly that the kind of adult education that’s given me so much could be under threat. Several people I know say they can’t afford to attend the courses anymore."
This should be a stark warning to the government. We need greater flexibility, especially around the flagship Train to Gain programme, to cope with differing demands in different parts of the country. One size will not fit all parts of the UK. We need to use the experience of lecturers in further education to develop skills training and programmes that keep people and local communities engaged with learning relevant to them and their needs.
During recessions employers will invariably look to cut back on training, and we should not be relying on businesses alone for skills creation. That said, slashing the Train to Gain budget for next year by 9% is not the answer either, especially as demand for courses and apprenticeships has increased beyond expectations. It is wrong for the government to push the Train to Gain programme, and then withdraw vital funds when it has lots of takers.
This kind of approach leads to devastation, as can been witnessed in the current building crisis blighting Further Education where 144 college building projects face funding delays. Colleges were encouraged to begin construction work only to then be told that the money had run out. It is deeply regrettable, as Sir Andrew Foster points out in his report on the crisis, that many of the problems were ‘predictable and unavoidable.’ It is now absolutely vital that treasury steps in with the necessary funds to sort out the mess.
The building crisis is the last thing that staff need at present, when they should be focusing on teaching and learning. They need to be supported in their efforts and not under constant threat of redundancy or worsening conditions of service. John Denham’s recent announcement that he expects colleges to deliver efficiency savings of £240m in 2010-11, plus £100m of savings from central administration, couldn’t have come at a worse time and flies in the face of government rhetoric about education not being a victim of the recession. These cuts will inevitably lead to job losses for many of the people charged with helping the newly unemployed.
Further Education helps some of the most marginalised people in our society and deserves to be properly funded.
Sally Hunt is general secretary of UCU, the largest UK union for academic-related staff working in FE
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