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The government’s plan to level up adult skills is going backwards

Training only increased in five of the most disadvantaged parts of the country in the last year of data.

By Michael Goodier

The number of people completing adult skills training continues to fall in the areas that need it most – putting a key mission of the government’s levelling up agenda further out of reach.

The government aims to have 200,000 more people successfully completing high-quality skills training each year in England by 2030, driven by 80,000 more people completing courses in parts of the country where fewer people are highly skilled, according to the levelling-up white paper published in February.

However, figures from the Department for Education show that training levels have gone backwards in these areas since Boris Johnson’s Conservative government has come to power.

Only five of the lowest-skilled areas (which the government defines as parts of the country with the lowest proportion of people with a level three qualification in 2019), saw the number of people completing skills training increase in the last year of data.

Stockton, Redcar and Cleveland, Middlesbrough, Hartlepool and Rochdale all saw more adults completing training in 2020/21 than in 2019/20. Every other lower-skilled area saw levels drop, with Leicester and Blackburn with Darwen seeing figures cut by more than a fifth.

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The picture is even worse over the past two years (between 2018/19 and 2020/21). Over that period of time – which includes the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic – none of the lowest-skilled parts of the country saw training levels increase.

Adult education and training have fallen dramatically under the past ten years of the Conservative government. There were around 1.9 million adults completing a course in 2012/13, but this figure had more than halved to 860,000 last year.

Chris Morgan is the director of education employability and skills at adult education charity the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA). He told Spotlight that while the recent government focus on raising skills attainment was welcome, the long-term drop in adult education and training was primarily a funding issue.

“There's less provision, there's less providers, and that’s because there's less funding,” he said. “Funding has not only been reduced since 2010, I think by a quarter, but funding rates don't change each year, meaning it then gets spread more thinly. With 16 to 19 funding it is reviewed regularly and funding increases, whereas with adult learning, the way it's funded is on an activity basis.”

In most of the country – not just the lowest-skilled areas – the number of adults qualifying from skills training has dropped in the past couple of years, which the government says is as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, areas the government says are in most need of additional training tend to have seen larger drops in people completing courses and early figures from the first half of the 2021/22 academic year show that these low-skilled areas have not made up any significant ground.

Morgan said that the pandemic has disproportionately affected the most disadvantaged adult learners: “What we've seen is that it's hit those most disadvantaged the hardest, because those are the same people that are likely to not have the equipment to be able to learn online. For those learners to learn online, it’s not just equipment, it's the specification of the equipment to even run, things like regular stable internet connection, never mind the actual skill set to learn online and log into a computer. So we've seen up and down the country, really our most disadvantaged communities have had that multiplier effect on them through the pandemic.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We have an ambitious levelling up mission to increase the number of people successfully completing high-quality skills training by 200,000, driven by 80,000 more people completing courses in the lowest skilled areas. Our investment, including £1.6bn through the National Skills Fund over the next three years, is already making an impact. The number of people starting apprenticeships across England so far this year is back to pre-pandemic levels, and thousands of people are taking advantage of the opportunity to upskill or retrain for free through one of our skills courses.”

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