In the limelight – February 2019

February 4, 2019

Alison Cowie looks at the changes to adult learning in the region

The European Commission defines adult learning as “all forms of learning undertaken by adults after having left initial education and training.”

In the UK, it refers to adults over 19 years – whether they are long-term unemployed or are

looking to upskill or gain new skills for the workplace. Chris Toon, deputy principal of Gateshead College, has

been in education for the past 20 years and has witnessed changes in adult provision over that time.

“What’s disappeared in the last ten years or so are the evening leisure courses – the examples I always give are batik or tie-dying; these classes don’t happen much in FE colleges now.

“What remains, though, is individuals coming to the college – often on an evening or at the weekend – to improve their English or maths, to upskill their existing vocational knowledge, or to gain new skills to make a change in their career.”

Gateshead College currently offers the Government- funded Access to Higher Education that provides an intensive course to over 19-year-olds with no previous formal qualifications.

The college has also been the recipient of European funding over the past two years, which has allowed it to bolster its adult learning offering.

“This funding has allowed us to provide more flexible support to unemployed people or to upskill those in the workforce,” says Chris. “Potentially, this funding is going
to disappear over the next couple of years – although, the Government has announced it is going to replace it with the Shared Prosperity Fund.”

The deputy principal also highlight changes to Government funding around five years ago, which effectively ended public funding for adults in the workplace – instead putting the onus on employers to pay for building skills among its workforces.

As a result, Gateshead College – along with many other
FE colleges – have formed partnerships with businesses to establish bespoke training courses that combine teaching and practical work experience.

Just one example of this is PlanBEE, a consortium between Gateshead College and key partners in the local construction industry.

“PlanBEE members understand that they must support the training of individuals in their sector,” says Chris. “Other

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industries still assume that colleges and universities should provide an instant pool of talent.”

In the south of the region, the Tees Valley Combined Authority is gearing up to gain control of adult learning, as part of the area’s devolution agreement.

With funding yet to be confirmed, it is expected that the combined authority will gain responsibility for a £30 million adult learning budget from August 1, 2019.

Shona Duncan is the head of education, employment and skills for the Tees Valley Combined Authority. She believes the ability to make decisions at a local level is crucial for addressing skills gaps.

“We’re moving from a national-driven, transactional system to a more responsive, flexible skills system that will better address issues in the Tees Valley labour market,” she says.

The Tees Valley Combined Authority has produced an employment and skills strategy, entitled Inspiring Our Future, which sets out six priorities for skills provision in the area.

Shona reports that she and her team will be developing this further between now and August 1 to create a more detailed delivery plan for adult learning provision.

Like Chris, she believes businesses must play a crucial role in the skills agenda.

“We’ve found that local businesses are keen to get involved [in the delivery plan] and what they are saying to us is that they want to help create an available workforce that has the right attitude and the right level of technical skills, which are linked to their industries,” Shona says.

“We’ve made it clear in our skills strategy that we will be supporting employers to achieve this but we want to challenge them, too.

“Businesses in the Tees Valley have a huge role to play, particularly around careers education; whether that’s getting the right information about opportunities into schools, or helping to break down barriers among adults who perhaps have not made the right career choices in the past.”

With funding issues and ongoing reports of a skills crisis in the North East, businesses can no longer expect a raft of ready-made employees.

With challenges around Brexit and the advancement of technology creating upskilling pressures, companies must be prepared to work with educational institutions and public sector organisations and take on more responsibility for moulding their future workforces.

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Burning issue: February 2019