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Local devolution could severely threaten adult learning opportunities

The Workers’ Educational Association, the largest voluntary sector provider, could lose £7 million in funding shake-up

John Bird, founder of The Big Issue

Lord John Bird has spoken out against the impact that local devolution could have on adult education opportunities after it left the future of a training provider in doubt.

The Workers’ Education Association [WEA] is facing the loss of an estimated £7 million – a third of its income – when the adult education budget is devolved next year.

Seven mayoral combined authorities – in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, London, Manchester, North of Tyne, Liverpool, Sheffield, Teesside, West Midlands and the West of England – will be given the power over their own budgets across 2019/20. During the transitional year 2018 to 2019, the Education and Skills Funding Agency will remain in control of the budget and will continue to manage it in line with its current funding and performance management arrangements.

And that could see the WEA’s £19.1m national contract slashed while the largest voluntary sector provider of adult education, with 50,000 students a year and 8,000 courses, would be forced to bid for local contracts, pushing up costs, according to WEA patron Lord Bird.

Devolution would also see extra costs of contracting, managing, administering, and reporting to all of the mayoral combined authorities, especially alongside contracts with the Department for Education and non-devolved areas. Added risk and uncertainty of income could also see the WEA hold additional cash reserves.

All these factors could lead to pressure on the WEA to cut student numbers.

“The WEA does not own any buildings. It does not have a shed load of money stacked up somewhere,” said The Big Issue founder in a House of Lords debate on lifelong learning on April 16.

“It cannot save for a rainy day, because everything is done simply and 84 per cent of the money made goes direct to the teaching—and the opportunities that come from it. Of those who come to the WEA without work, 59 per cent find work.

“If we really want to find a way to help this organisation and others that are calling for support, we could do a lot to heal the problem of the shrinking numbers.”

Lord Bird spent time in prison as a teenager and has direct experience of the century-old training provider’s lifelong learning offerings, including art, brickwork and crafts.

“There are many young people, and not so young people, who really want to get on in life,” he said.

“They want to make changes in their own lives and to be learning eternally until the last moment. By doing so, they want to demonstrate to children and indeed to everyone that learning is the key to social justice, democracy and other things.”

In response, Viscount Younger of Leckie, speaking for the government, insisted that the change gives firms like the WEA “an opportunity for providers to develop their provision to meet local needs”.

He also urged the WEA to contact the devolved combined authorities and Greater London Authority to start a “working relationship” and “demonstrate the way in which they can contribute to meeting skill needs locally”.

Reacting to the debate, WEA CEO Ruth Spellman called for national funding to continue for the training provider as well as full recognition and compensation for those who will face additional costs in supporting the new contracting arrangements.

She said: “The WEA will be adversely affected by devolution in three major ways. First, we stand to lose around a third of the value of our national contract in 2019/20. Second, the extra costs of contracting, managing, administering, and reporting to all of the Mayoral Combined Authorities (MCAs) plus managing both our current contract with DfE and contracts which will need to be developed in non-devolution areas.

“The third major impact will be to add risk and uncertainty to the WEAs income so that the charity will be forced to hold additional reserves.   The net effect of these pressures will be to make cuts to student numbers inevitable at precisely the time when we need to increase our capacity. Four of the SDIs (The Residential Colleges) have been given an extra two years of national funding to offset additional costs, but not the WEA which is by far the largest provider and will be worst affected.”

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