Levelling Up Adult Community Education

Adult community education has long been a neglected and rather poorly understood part of the further education sector. Yet, while national-level politicians and civil servants, and most local councillors and officials, know little about it, it plays a critical role, usually below the policy radar, in engaging adults from the most disadvantaged backgrounds in making the first crucial steps into education, training and employment.

And while recent policy interventions, notably the new report from the Education Select Committee on lifelong learning, have acknowledged this, they also bemoan the paucity of evidence on adult education, its outcomes, reach and impact.

Filling this gap, and setting out clearly and persuasively what adult community education does and how it benefits people and communities, is critically important in ensuring providers can make a full contribution to the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda, and that this contribution is properly understood. That is why the Further Education Trust for Leadership (FETL) commissioned ACE membership body HOLEX to undertake this report. We very much welcome its publication and hope it will support not only government in realising the potential of adult education but also providers in making sense of the levelling-up agenda.

The challenges in this policy area are immense, and are immensely complicated by the double tsunami of Brexit and Covid-19, both of which could end up greatly exacerbating existing inequalities. Understanding what adult education can contribute to this agenda, particularly in getting the hard-to-reach back into education and learning, is crucial. We need to ensure ACE services have the reach and resources to make a difference, and that policy making and planning at national, local and regional levels recognise its distinct role and are sufficiently joined up, inclusive and holistic in their thinking to match provision against both individual and community need, closing gaps where they are identified. The data included in this report should be used to support this.

The pandemic represents an appalling tragedy, the ramifications of which we will struggle with for years to come, but it has also highlighted a need to change and, I very much hope, given us the impetus to remake society in a fairer, less unequal and more inclusive way. Adult education has a critical role in this. If the government is serious about ‘levelling up’, reducing inequality and creating a more balanced economy, it must not only invest more in education at every level, but do so in a more thoughtful, integrated and comprehensive way. This is important in ensuring there are no rungs missing in the ladder of opportunity, particularly near the bottom, where policymakers often fear to tread – and about which, to be frank, they tend to know little.

This report presents key data, collated in an intelligent, systematic manner, that should be useful to researchers, policy-makers and advocates of adult education in making this ambitious vision a reality. It also offers a set of recommendations that warrant serious, concerted reflection. It is just the sort of thinking that we, as a society and as a sector, need.

Dame Ruth Silver is President of the Further Education Trust for Leadership


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