Monday, 21 August 2017 14:43

What future for rural adult education?

What future for rural adult education?

Back in July 2016, the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Adult Education published a report it had commissioned from the University of Warwick into the needs of adult learners. The research highlighted learning taking place in education and training institutions (online and offline), the workplace (on and off-site) and in community settings; suggesting this diversity plays a significant role in an individual’s personal development and in leading them into employment.

From the perspective of providers, the research found Government policy has a ‘lopsided fixation’ on young people and apprenticeships, often at the expense of other forms of adult education. From the perspective of learners, the study found many felt policy-makers did not understand the true benefits of adult education.

From a geographical perspective, the research found a lack of access to private transport and/or the cost of public transport in rural areas to be presenting major challenges for low income adults wanting to participate in learning. Where next for rural adult education and learning? Jessica Sellick investigates.

Back in July 2016, the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Adult Education published a report it had commissioned from the University of Warwick into the needs of adult learners. The research highlighted learning taking place in education and training institutions (online and offline), the workplace (on and off-site) and in community settings; suggesting this diversity plays a significant role in an individual’s personal development and in leading them into employment. From the perspective of providers, the research found Government policy has a ‘lopsided fixation’ on young people and apprenticeships, often at the expense of other forms of adult education. From the perspective of learners , the study found many felt policy-makers did not understand the true benefits of adult education. From a geographical perspective, the research found a lack of access to private transport and/or the cost of public transport in rural areas to be presenting major challenges for low income adults wanting to participate in learning.

The report, ‘adult education – too important to be left to chance’, contained five recommendations to secure the future of adult learning: (1) the establishment of a national and regional strategy for adult education. (2) The redistribution of resources to develop a fair and cohesive adult education framework. (3) Improved awareness of adult education through careers information, advice and guidance in local communities. (4) Research into the full impact of adult education. (5) The encouragement of employers to offer more opportunities to adults to keep them in employment. The report also included a warning from the Association of Colleges that national policy for adult education could disappear by 2020 if providers are forgotten in area reviews and skills devolution processes.

Are we making investments in adult education which reach out to people in rural areas or are rural areas being forgotten within current and emerging policy and funding arrangements? I offer three points.

Firstly, what policies and priorities for adult education does the Government have and how is this funded? Adult education usually refers to education for individuals aged 19 years of age and over and takes place outside of school and the higher education sector – this definition also includes apprenticeships. The Government aims to ‘make sure that further education provides the skilled workforce employers need and helps individuals reach their full potential.’

Tagged under further education, skills and vocational training and/or adult and community learning; adult education finds itself within the auspices of the Department for Education (DfE) and its non-ministerial departments of Ofsted and Ofqual; and DfE’s non-executive agency the Education and Skills Funding Agency (EFSA). Adult education and learning can also be found with the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and its non-departmental body, the Government Office for Science; and in the Department for Digital, Culture Media & Sport (DCMS) and non-departmental public bodies such as the Big Lottery Fund. It has also been at the core of bodies established by Government such as the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (which closed in March 2017) and Student Finance England and the Student Loans Company.

References to adult education can be found in various Government documents over the last 20 years: from the Skills Investment Strategy 2010-2011 (an investment strategy and funding streams aligned to Government priorities produced by the Labour Government) to the New Horizon report , published by the Coalition Government. The Coalition Government recognised how adult and community learning ‘stimulates progressive learning, often leading to employment…it sustains democratic citizenship.’

In September 2015 an All-Party Parliamentary Group for Adult Education was established by nine Specialist Designated Institutions (SDIs) to raise the profile of adult education and the role high quality provision plays to the most disadvantaged members of society. In January 2017 David Lammy MP led a debate in the Commons Chamber on night schools and adult education.

This highlighted: (a) the need to make sure we do not lose the legacy of Samuel Morley, John Ruskin and William Morris and the value of learning for learning’s sake. (b) How since 2010 the Commons had discussed education on 339 occasions but this had not included a single debate on adult education – with the focus instead on primary, secondary and higher education; notwithstanding there had been some debates around apprenticeships. (c) The Government’s national plan for lifelong learning has so far not appeared. (d) Calls for a national strategy led by a Minister working across departments rather than a patchwork of provision across the country as a consequence of devolution. In April 2017 a number of further education providers reinforced this call to appoint a departmental minister for lifelong learning.

Between 2010 and April 2017 funding for adult education was the responsibility of the Skills Funding Agency (SFA). In April 2017 the SFA merged with the Education Funding Agency to form the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA). Each year a Minister, now within DfE, publishes a skills funding statement or letter containing the Government’s priorities along with an annual budget and indicative budgets up to 2020.

The latest letter, published in March 2017, confirms that for 2017-2018 the Government will invest £1.9 billion in apprenticeship training for all ages, £1.5 billion into a new Adult Education budget and £325 million for provision at Levels 3 to 6 through Advanced Learner Loans. The funding rules set out the provision provided under the Adult Education Budget (AEB). The AEB will be focused on: (1) engaging adults and providing them with the skills and learning they need to equip them for work, an apprenticeship or other learning [helping those furthest from learning or the workplace]; and/or (2) making available more flexible, tailored programmes which may not require a qualification.

Looking at the funding letters from DfE to the SFA/ESFA over time reveals how the total funding allocated to adult education has fallen from £3.91 billion in 2011-2012 to £3.24 billion in 2015-2016 (when funding for advanced learner loans is omitted) which equates to a 17% cut in cash terms or a 21% cut in real terms. Alongside this, money from the European Social Fund (ESF) is used to put in place learning provision for individuals not supported by the ‘standard funding system.’

The total value of the ESF programme for 2007-2013 was £1.6 billion and the current programme (2014-2020) is expected to total £1 billion. For previous years the Skills Funding Agency annual accounts have allowed for a comparison of what was spent rather than allocated.

The 2015-2016 accounts show an under-spend of £120 million (3% of its total budget) against a total income of £4.27 billion. Overall programme expenditure was £3.58 billion, lower than a total of £4.34 billion in 2014-2015 owing to the SFA transferring capital projects to colleges and Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and because of a reduction in Government funding.

In 2015 DfE worked with HM Treasury and BIS (now BEIS) to build a cost baseline for the FE sector. This identified wide variation in all cost areas (particularly in teaching and administrative costs). They found the ‘more profitable providers’ had a higher average income per learner due to a more diverse funding mix; that cost was not a key driver in learner outcomes and success; and that there were limited incentives for cost-efficiency as providers were not generally profit maximising.

The Government is now seeking to transfer control of the AEB to local areas through devolution agreements, with devolved budgets in place from 2018-2019. The ESFA is working with LEPs to support them in engagement with the skills sector and allocating their skills budgets. This local approach to adult education and skills commissioning is part of Government attempts to match education provision with the needs of local labour markets. At the same time, a number of bodies including the Learning and Work Institute, the Association of Colleges and the Association of Employment and Learning Providers have called for a replacement of ESF funding post Brexit.

In July 2017 the House of Lords Economic Affairs Select Committee announced an inquiry into ‘the economics of higher education, further education and vocational training.’ The Committee is seeking evidence on (1) the current structure of post-school education and training, and whether the way it is financed appropriate for the modern British economy. (2) If not, what changes are required to develop a system that meets the needs of enterprise and the labour market whilst providing value for students and the Government? The deadline for written submissions is 14 September 2017.

Within these policy discussions and funding decisions, emphasis is often placed on targeting resources at skills, training and learning that leads to employment and economic growth. This does not fully attend to the energy, intelligence, passion and aspiration of people who find learning beneficial for many reasons (e.g. reducing isolation and loneliness, confidence building, personal interest).

These policy discussions often fail to recognise the community settings and informal learning places where adult education happens (village hall, children’s centre, library). These policy discussions also open up new debates around how much should be invested in adult education, where the money should come from (Government, employers, learners) and how it should be spent. For me, the need to ensure everyone has equitable access to provision (including rural areas) is important.

Secondly, how are providers being affected by the changing landscape of adult education and what are some of the views of learners? Hard data about learner participation, outcomes and highest qualification is published by the DfE and ESFA on a quarterly basis. The latest figures, from July 2017 , show participation in Government funded apprenticeships is higher so far in the 2016-2017 academic year compared to the same point at 2015-2016.

However, participation in adult further education is less in 2016-2017 than that reported at the same period in 2015-2016. 1,966,500 learners had participated in adult further education by the third quarter of 2016-2017 compared to 2,032,500 reported at that time in 2015-2016 (a decrease of 3.2%). 715,600 adult learners had participated in an English or maths course in 2016-2017 compared to 736,100 at the same time in 2015-2016 (a decrease of 2.8%). 430,500 adult learners had participated in a community learning course so far in 2016-2017 compared to 465,600 at the same time in 2015-2016 (a decrease of 7.5%).

Compared to the same period in 2015-2016, for 2016-2017 the number of learners taking a personal and community development course decreased by 5.3%, the numbers taking a neighbourhood learning in deprived communities course decreased by 15.1%, the numbers taking a family English, math or language course fell by 19.7% and the numbers taking a wider family learning course decreased by 15%. Across all adult categories, apart from apprenticeships, the trends in participation show a decline in the number of adult learners since figures peaked in 2011-2012.

In September 2016 Foresight published an evidence review on literacy and numeracy learning. This suggested that initiatives had been shaped by an economic agenda – the perceived need to upskill the population in order to ensure the UK’s ability to compete on the global market; with progress measured by gains in qualifications. However, evidence on learner motivation suggested neither the desire to acquire qualifications nor the desire to improve labour market position as primary motivations to engage in learning.

Instead, the evidence found adult motivations to learn are often driven by intrinsic goals (e.g. regaining confidence lost at school; to ‘brush up’ on learning missed out on in the past) or extrinsic goals (e.g. career development). Integrating skills provision into other learning activities made courses attractive – adults were found to be more likely to engage with maths where it was relevant to managing their finances or helping their children with the subject.

For me, what this evidence review reinforces is how education is lifelong and for learners is as much about improving aspects of their everyday lives as it is about economic benefits. Particularly for lower level courses, Government policy does not always stress the importance of the wider benefits of learning, focusing instead on qualifications associated with employability which does not appeal to all learners .

According to the OECD, there are an estimated 9 million working age adults in England (more than a quarter of adults aged 16-65 years) with low literacy or numeracy skills or both. Young adults perform no better than those reaching retirement age.

From looking at their projections the basic skills of the English labour force could fall further behind those of other countries. Among those aged 16-34 years 20% have not completed upper secondary education (Level 2 and 3) and 50% lack basic skills. The OECD suggests family background has a particularly strong effect on basic skills among young people which is not as prevalent in other countries.

In Scotland, the Community Learning and Development Regulations 2013 place a duty on Local Authorities to secure the delivery of community learning and development (CLD) in their area. This report describes the variety of activities planned by the range of CLD providers in each area. Here CLD covers a variety of adult learning where the core purpose is to empower people (individually and collectively) to make positive changes in their lives and their communities through learning. – mention community learning development plans and other context.

In 2012-2013 BIS (now BEIS) ran 15 Community Learning Trust (CLT) pilots to test new ways of planning and delivering provision. CLTs gave residents a stronger voice in deciding the shape of local provision, partnership working was critical to shaping local provision and with some public investment they can provide a community focused learning offer.

Since then, the landscape in which adult education providers in England operate has been changing. Between September 2015 and December 2016, 33 area reviews were undertaken (in five waves). Initiated by Government, these reviews brought together providers, Local Authorities and business representatives to discuss how they could better meet local skills need whilst increasing efficiency and resilience.

The intention was that this would lead to ‘fewer, often larger, more resilient and efficient providers’ and ‘greater specialisation, creating institutions that are genuine centres of expertise…and secure operational and financial efficiencies” (page 7).

The Association of Colleges (AoC) has revealed since this stocktake was carried out there have been 33 college mergers and 4 sixth form college academy conversions. The AoC expects to see another 15-20 mergers and 10-15 conversions over the next 18 months. Despite these efficiencies, providers continue to highlight how constant change and shrinking resources are hindering providers and learners.

This blog, written by Helen Osborne at The Friends Centre, an adult education provider in Brighton supporting approximately 1,100 learners each year, describes how instability is affecting staff and learners.

The Transforming Lives project aims to provide evidence of how further education is vital in empowering people and communities in 21 st century Britain. The research provides learners and teachers with the opportunity to tell their stories. The project highlights research into the way FE is funded (using an annualised formula that includes a proportion linked to qualifications achieved) alongside a requirement to gather extensive amounts of performance data, are often detrimental to learners educational experience.

Going forward, the Social Market Foundation published a report on the further education and skills sector over the next decade. The document explores areas where providers could identify new markers of distinctiveness, collaborate with different partners and pitch to new pools of learners.

One possible scenario in a post-Brexit world is where providers become local champions and engines of social mobility – working with the private sector to help push self-employed people and local businesses up the value chain while also becoming a one stop shop for apprenticeship provision. IPPR’s recent report on building a skills system for the economy of the 2030s suggests that in order to have any impact on productivity, pay and progression; improvements in skills levels must be complemented with action to increase employer demand and utilisation of skills in the workplace.

In June 2017, the Local Government Association (LGA) published its vision for employment and skills ‘work vision’ which seeks to address have local areas have little ability to influence priorities, funding or delivery by putting in place a ‘one stop service rooted in place.’

How can we ensure (current and future) adult education provision meets the needs of learners, communities and employers at the local level?

Thirdly, how can we meet the learning needs and aspirations of adults in rural areas?

Back in December 2012, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (now the Learning and Work Institute) prepared a report for BIS (now BEIS) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) on community based learning in rural areas.

The report examined the wide range of provision in rural areas (from that funded by Government to that provided by voluntary organisations, local authorities and the private sector through to self-organised learning and online learning) and the participation of adults in that learning. The report highlighted the challenges faced by providers in finding the resources to meet the needs of rural learners and set out a number of recommendations around funding, focus, improved mapping of rural provision and the importance of collaboration and partnership working.

Prior to this (in the 1990s) the University of Leeds had research strand on rural adult education. This considered the adequacy of provision, the different types of educational institutions (e.g. agricultural colleges, village colleges, residential colleges) and how any research needed to cover all aspects of the learning process – including the need for new approaches to delivery to enable learners to progress at their own pace.

More recently, research published by Rural England CIC in January 2017 found only half of prospective learners in rural areas have ‘reasonable’ access to a further education college (i.e., they could reach an institution by public transport or on foot in a reasonable travel time) and are losing out on access to education and skills opportunities. The report also found the proportion of the working age population with at least a Level 3 qualification was lower in rural areas compared to urban areas.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) publishes an annual rural education bulletin. The 2017 edition provides data on educational attainment and the relationship between attainment and economic outcomes (e.g. median earnings, unemployment, poverty). While rural Americans are better educated compared to data from 2000; those who are older, male and from an ethnic minority background continue to lag behind their urban counterparts.

In rural counties where individuals have the lowest levels of educational attainment communities struggle because of higher levels of overall poverty, unemployment and population loss. Some new approaches to provide rural residents with access to education are emerging. In Pennsylvania, for example, this includes the expansion of community college courses online and the establishment of a new Rural Regional College of Northern Pennsylvania (RRC) which offers affordable post-secondary learning in 17 locations across the region.

Some of this resonates in the UK where institutions such as City Lit and Birkbeck run community outreach and widening access programmes (albeit in urban areas), and more recently Popup College which involves FE providers partnering with coffee shops and using them for adult education classes after they have closed for the evening. Founded by entrepreneur Jason Elsom, he hopes to bring PopUp College to people who live in rural communities and take the number of colleges participating in the initiative from 15 to 30.

RSN members will be familiar with examples of adult education and learning in their own area. Using familiar/local venues, having local contacts/community champions to raise awareness and recruit learners, ensuring content has applicability to everyday life as much as leading to any economic benefits, working in partnership (with Local Authorities and other service providers) and thinking about legacy and sustainability are all key for me.

I am evaluating a financial confidence and capability project which is supporting older people in four rural places. From speaking to some of the learners and attending some of the sessions, the course is helping them to both manage their money in retirement [it is not prescriptive, does not lead to a qualification instead using relevant information and practical examples] and reducing isolation and loneliness [local champions are used to advertise the sessions and drive up participation]. More significantly, when the course has finished, some learners continue to meet weekly (paying a small donation to the venue) providing each other with peer-to-peer support as well as broadening financial awareness across the local community.

One of the authors of ‘adult education – too important to be left to chance’  Deirdre Hughes, describes how “over the last decade, we have seen outstanding progress in adult education reaching deep into local communities and improving people’s life chances.

Our research highlights the social, economic and cultural benefits of such provision. However, there is a serious danger that this type of provision gets seriously forgotten in national and/or regional policies. This would be to the detriment of millions of adults who simply want to improve their life chances and need some educational support along the way.”  

To consider how deeply this reaches into rural communities, do we need to collect data on education attainment and the social and economic outcomes this results in (similar to the USDA’s annual digest) and/or map existing provision (who, when, where and how) and then see where the gaps are?What rural thinking should be in the Government’s plan for lifelong learning (e.g. equitable access and fairer funding)? And how will the plan (and DfE and ESFA more broadly) support some of the 9 million working age adults in England with low literacy or numeracy skills? Watch this space…


RSN members may be interested in the 'Future is Rural' Conference being hosted by the Rural Cultural Forum and held at Manchester Town Hall on Wednesday 22 November 2017. For more information and to see the event programme please see this leaflet.


Jessica is a researcher/project manager at Rose Regeneration; an economic development business working with communities, Government and business to help them achieve their full potential. Her current work includes supporting a Lottery programme to help people into paid work; research for the NHS on rural workforce recruitment and retention issues and supporting a community rail partnership. Jessica can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  or by telephone on 01522 521211. Website: Twitter: @RoseRegen

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