Simon Parkinson, CEO and General Secretary, Workers’ Education Association (WEA)

Joining-up Adult Education Funding

Adult Education was refreshingly prominent in the recent General Election campaign, with all major parties making a series of promises and funding commitments. This was welcome after a decade of under investment, leading to a decline in participation in adult learning across the UK.

Now is the time for the new Conservative Government to keep its promises to individuals and communities across the country. The inclusion of £3bn over the next Parliament for “a new National Skills Fund” was eye-catching when it appeared in the Queen’s Speech.

In a post-Brexit UK, with an overall political ambition of “levelling up”, a joined-up package of reforms including the National Retraining Scheme, the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, the continuing devolution of the Adult Education Budget and the National Skills Fund, is key.

A Minister for Adult Education and Skills

To ensure this joined up approach, the time has come for a National Adult Learning & Skills Strategy, led by the newly appointed Minister for Adult Education & Skills.

This would raise the profile of adult education and skills development and alert policy-makers and funders to the many ways in which adult learning already works for outcomes in health, community participation and cultural awareness as well as the more obvious progressions in employability, economic participation, skills and education.

Three Areas for the National Skills Fund

To drive real change the National Skills Fund should focus on three main areas:

1. The smaller the business

First, SMEs. The smaller the business, the less likely it is to have the resources to invest in training. Training for SMEs needs to be flexible in time and location, tailored closely to the needs of employees who wear several hats and require a range of skills and cost effective. Community adult learning providers are well positioned to provide this.

2. Community providers

Secondly, “the Fund … will help to transform the lives of people who have not got onto the work ladder and lack qualifications”.

Community providers, such as the WEA, have a solid track record in supporting adults in precisely this situation, providing the first step back and helping develop the confidence to learn. Often, the crucial element in making provision accessible is the social and community aspect, the opportunity to learn, face to face, in a supportive group with a tutor who engages as a peer not a sage.


There is an increasing tendency to assume that flexible learning is only delivered online. The Fund should support a more blended approach which includes community-based and workplace learning alongside an online offering. And it should meet the needs of employers, of course, but it should also recognise how potential learners can find their way into the scheme and, by definition, those not on the “work ladder” will require the support of community providers.

3. The specific needs of older learners

Third, the Fund supports “people who are keen to return to work from, say, raising a family, or switch from one career to another”. Adult learning is often about supporting people through transitions and reducing the barriers to learning which people face when returning to work or facing redeployment in later life. Sharing best practice on how to tailor provision for specific groups will help to make the Fund fully inclusive.

So often training programmes are focused on those at the start of their career. Apprenticeships are in theory available to all ages, yet only 9% of starts in England last year were for people over 45. More focus needs to be given to the specific needs of older learners and the ongoing contribution they can make.

Start with the Community Adult Learning Sector

Even at this stage the National Skills Fund is looking to support a wide range of people; employees of SMEs, adults who are unemployed, adults who are returning to the workplace, low- skilled workers and employees looking to change career. If we are to provide the range of opportunities needed to support these groups, investment into the educational infrastructure will be needed. The community adult learning sector is a powerful starting point for investment as it is the part of the education system which is already delivering flexible and accessible provision for adult learners of all ages, abilities and backgrounds.

The National Skills Fund needs to meet the needs of employers and the needs of the economy but above all it needs to meet the needs of the adult population who are in work or want to be in work. In a rapidly changing landscape that will require nuanced and carefully targeted support, from trusted, high quality providers who can engage fully with learners and employers.

Recommendation 1

The National Skills Fund should be embedded within a national Adult Education and Skills Strategy led by the Minister for Skills.

Recommendation 2

In the first instance, the National Skills Fund should be used to invest in community-based adult learning providers who support those furthest from the workplace.

Recommendation 3

The National Skills Fund should help to train and retrain adults of all ages from 24 at least up to the state pension age of 66 and if possible, beyond.

Simon Parkinson, CEO and General Secretary, Workers’ Education Association (WEA)


Making a Success of the National Skills Fund

As we enter the 2020s, adults and employers are confronted with unprecedented economic and labour market change, in this context NCFE and Campaign for Learning asked twelve authors to set out their initial thoughts on the National Skills Fund, and the journey towards a ‘right to retraining’. 

These leading thinkers recommend policies for the reform of adult education to support a changing economy in this collection of articles.

Exploring the proposed National Skills Fund and an individual’s right to retraining in more detail, these articles highlight some of the major challenges the policy faces, alongside issues which are set to further impact the economy.

The authors are:

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