Can further adult education survive the current cuts? Last month the government got the axe out again and announced its intention to hack a whopping 25 per cent from the Adult Skills Budget, which funds non-academic post-19 education. Further education was deeply wounded as it was, with a third of its budget already severed since the 2010 election.
The situation is sufficiently critical for the Association of Colleges to worry that adult further education will be a thing of the past by 2020 if cuts continue at their present rate. Already there are one million fewer adults in classrooms and workshops than there were in 2010.
The statement “our society believes in equality of opportunity for all its citizens”, as proclaimed in the 2011 Wolf Report on vocational education, reads more and more like some kind of sick joke with every subsequent slash to the budget.
The Skills Funding Agency claims that its focus is on high quality apprenticeships. But in the past year alone there has been a major decline in the number of students, primarily aged 19-24, taking courses such as construction and engineering. And anyway, why should the whole of adult further education suffer as a result?
The teaching of basic skills such as numeracy and literacy is a key aspect of further adult education, and it’s not as if the UK ranks highly on this front and we don’t need to worry. According to the OECD, it’s quite the contrary and the government is fully aware of the problem. Its own 2014/15 report on Adult Literacy and Numeracy stresses the importance of these skills both to the economy and to the learners themselves, who are healthier, happier and better off as a result of their improved abilities.
Poor basic skills also affect business performance. In 2011 the CBI reported that, to address the weaknesses in basic skills, 44 per cent of employers have had to invest in remedial training for school and college leavers.
Yet the government’s “strategy” is to reduce provision while expecting adults to have sufficient opportunities to learn and retrain. Either somebody hasn’t done their maths homework or they know that further education, never a destination of choice for the chattering classes, is an easy target.
The cuts mean that many colleges now depend on exploiting their hardworking staff in order to function. According to a 2013 University and College Union (UCU) survey, 61 per cent of FE colleges were employing teaching staff on an hourly-paid basis, with no job security and no career progression.
The work is important and can be very demanding, as anybody who has taught basic skills to a classroom of young adults who have been failed by the school system can verify. And yet the pay can be jaw-droppingly-below-the-minimum-wage low. Holiday pay, as well as time for paperwork, preparation and marking is generally included in the hourly teaching rate. It’s a system that leads to teachers putting in hours of unpaid work every week, as the work cannot possibly be done in paid time, and everybody knows it. Some teachers, according to the UCU, taking all their work into account, estimate that they are earning as little as £4 an hour.
This has an inevitable knock-on effect on morale. Staff turnover is extremely high, as are stress and sickness rates. Students suffer as a result. Teachers are clamouring to get out of the profession before they’re kicked out. The Association of Colleges reports that the average college has made 105 redundancies since 2009/10.
One such demoralised teacher is David*, who teaches in a deprived area of east London. “I’ve been on an hourly-paid contract for years even though many of my past students have gone on to get good jobs which would otherwise have been denied to them, and yet they always come up with some excuse not to give me fractional or full-time work. I would like to organise guest speakers and trips but then I’d be doing even more unpaid work.” David now hopes to get out of the profession. He says that “the pressures are hell”.
However, some in the sector are thriving in spite of the harsh climate. The latest figures reveal that principals in FE colleges earned £127,000 on average, with the highest paid receiving £228,000. Mark Silverman of Lambeth College, emerging from weeks of strike due to a dispute over changes to staff contracts, was recently awarded a 13 per cent pay rise to take his pay to £150,000. Maxine Room, the now-departed Principal of Lewisham Southwark College, also on £150,000, oversaw the £300,000 rebranding of the college to “LeSoCo” – geddit? – only for the college to then survey their students and change the name back again. Elmwood – the branding company – designed the logo so that an L shape surrounds the college name, its corner turned up, “revealing an exciting new future”. Lewisham Southwark College is currently facing a £7m cut to its staffing budget.
*not his real name