A plan for an adult skills and lifelong learning revolution Contents

5Adult community learning

What is adult community learning?

56.Adult community learning is delivered through a diverse network of providers, including local authority adult education services, colleges, and charities. Most community learning provision is at level 2 (equivalent to GCSE level) or below, including non-formal learning which does not lead to accreditation.125 It covers a wide range of areas, such as English, maths, digital skills and English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) qualifications, as well as learning aimed at developing employability skills and improving well-being, family-oriented programmes, and learning for leisure and enjoyment. Written evidence submitted by the Department defines the purpose of community learning as to:

[…] develop the skills, confidence, motivation and resilience of adults of different ages and backgrounds in order to: progress towards formal learning or employment and-or improve their health and well-being, including mental health and-or develop stronger communities.126

57.Adult community learning fills a vital role in targeting the hardest to reach adults, including learners in deprived communities, and those furthest from the job market.127 We know from our own experiences of hearing from constituents that community learning supports adults who cannot even see the ladder of opportunity, let alone climb it. Community learning can act as a stepping-stone to qualifications or even employment. Simon Parkinson, Chief Executive of the Workers’ Educational Association, told us that adult community learning

[…] is about being in the communities, highlighting the issues that are important to them, developing content that they will engage with and then building skills off the back of that. If that leads to employment, if that is the right route for people, great, but it also leads to social cohesion or improvement in health and wellbeing, and that has benefits as well.128

58.Local authorities play a vital role in delivering community learning. As of 2017, 139 out of the 343 councils in England offered adult community learning services.129 Council-run or commissioned provision provides a crucial entry point for adults furthest away from formal education or employment.130 Local authority providers are in a position to link with other services within the authority to identify and refer learners, and leverage their local networks to deliver community learning tailored to the needs of their communities.131 Dr Pember, policy director for HOLEX, told us that local authority community education services work with around 500,000 learners per year, and 92% are judged good or outstanding by Ofsted.132

59.The Institutes for Adult Learning (IALs), a network of nine specialist designated adult education providers that support over 130,000 adult learners per year, are also key players in the community learning landscape. IALs enrol significant proportions of learners from disadvantaged areas, with no or low qualifications.133 The Workers’ Educational Association, which is one of the IALs, is the UK’s largest voluntary sector provider of adult education. It supports around 48,000 learners per year, and in 2019, 38% of these learners were from a disadvantaged postcode, 44% were on income-related benefits and 41% had no or very low previous qualifications.134 The WEA and the other IALs are central strengths of England’s adult education landscape.

60.During 2018–19, 490,300 learners participated in Adult Education Budget funded community learning in England. This is a decline of 25% since 2011–12, and a decline of 32% since 2008–9. It is also the fifth year of consecutive decline.135 This is a deeply concerning trend.

The benefits of community learning

61.The value and benefits of community learning are numerous and well-documented through a body of academic and sector research. The Community Learning Mental Health Research Project, a 2017 project commissioned by the Department, found that 52% of learners with clinically significant symptoms of anxiety and/or depression no longer had clinically significant symptoms by the end of their course.136 A 2018 randomised controlled trial designed and overseen by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government found that learners participating in a community-based English language intervention doubled their proficiency and improved their social interaction skills compared to the control group.137 Research by the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) surveyed over 5,000 adult learners on WEA courses and found evidence of an extensive array of improved outcomes for individuals, their families and wider communities. 70% of learners reported their self-confidence had increased as a result of their WEA course, 64% of parents reported improvements to their confidence in helping their children with school work as a result of their course, 27% of students took part in activities to improve their local community, and 26% started earning more as a result of their course.138

English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) provision

62.English for Speakers of Other Languages is a vital area of community-based provision. The Government’s 2019 Integrated Communities Action Plan highlighted that ESOL provision is “fundamental” for achieving integrated communities, for improving individuals’ confidence and quality of life, and enabling them to access employment.139 Four-fifths of ESOL providers offer provision funded by the Department for Education via the Adult Education Budget (AEB).140 The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Home Office also fund ESOL initiatives.141 A House of Commons Library briefing reports that AEB ESOL funding fell by 56% in real terms between 2009–10 and 2016–17, concluding that the fall in participation from 179,000 in 2009–10 to 114,000 in 2016–17 “followed a very similar trend to funding”.142 Research commissioned by the Department found that 64% of providers stated their current level of funding was insufficient to meet demands for ESOL provision.143

63.AEB funded ESOL provision allows for full funding up to and including level 2 for unemployed learners up to the age of 23. Employed learners, and those over 24, are liable for co-funding.144 Written evidence reported that fee eligibility rules were a barrier to ESOL participation.145 We heard from the University of Derby that “Long waiting lists for ESOL courses meant that new migrants struggled to find work and integrate fully into their local communities.”146 Similarly, written evidence from the City of London Corporation reported that “demand for ESOL is particularly high in central London boroughs, and often outstripped supply”.147 The Learning, Training and Employment Group further suggested that:

Underfunding of ESOL […] means that highly-skilled and motivated learners, often migrants, are trapped in the lowest-paid roles (where they are vulnerable to exploitation) rather than being able to contribute and play a full role as UK residents.148

64.We asked witnesses about the state of ESOL provision. Simon Parkinson told us that the Covid-19 pandemic had particularly affected ESOL learners who “have struggled most to engage digitally, particularly at entry level, because they are at the start of their journey”.149 Dr Pember agreed that ESOL is “a worry area at the moment, because those particular learners are not presenting themselves at centres”.150 Dr Pember further suggested that the involvement of multiple departments and funding streams added unnecessary bureaucracy:

[…] we just need an ESOL policy that fits into this lifelong-learning strategy, because that is one of the areas where there is duplication of effort, where the Home Office has a different project with different outcomes, and we have DfE, and we have different monitoring and different performance measures. It would be good to see a lifelong learning strategy with an ESOL element within it.151

65.English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) provision can be transformational for adults. Unfortunately, we heard evidence of long waiting lists and demand outstripping supply. And despite the critical importance of ESOL, Adult Education Budget funding for ESOL fell by 56% between 2009–10 and 2016–17, with participation following a similar trend. 2019 research commissioned by the Department for Education also found that 64% of providers stated their current level of funding was insufficient to meet demands for ESOL provision.

66.The Department’s lifelong learning strategy must include an ESOL element. The Department should take a lead role for adult ESOL strategy to ensure a more joined up approach to cross-Department ESOL funding and objectives. The Department must undertake analysis to assess current and longer-term demand for adult ESOL provision. Additional funding should then be allocated to areas with highest demand for ESOL provision.

Learners with SEND

67.Learners with special education needs and disabilities (SEND) can particularly benefit from participating in lifelong learning.152 While our inquiry did not specifically include a term of reference on this area, we received several written submissions which addressed this issue. Our Committee will examine this issue further, and question Ministers over the coming year. The majority of submissions focused on the role of community education in providing continuing learning opportunities for adults with SEND. We also heard concerns that when funded Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) end for those aged over 25, there can be limited suitable provision, particularly in terms of pre-employment programmes such as Supported Internships and Supported Apprenticeships.153 This tallies with our predecessor Committee’s 2019 Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Report, which found that opportunities for supported internships and apprenticeships are “limited […] there is not sufficient support”.154 Community learning providers offer an important range of continuing learning opportunities for adults with SEND including basic skills, life skills for independent living, as well as courses for leisure and enjoyment.155 Northern College, for example, told us that 48% of their 2017–18 enrolments were from students with a learning difficulty or disability.156 This compares to 18% of adult learners overall who have a learning difficulty or disability.157 We asked the Minister whether there would be additional help to ensure adult learners with SEND can access provision funded through the new National Skills Fund. The Minister assured us that the Department will “definitely make sure that these courses are accessible to those with special educational needs”.158 Nonetheless, we are aware that funding pressures can make it challenging for providers to fully support adult learners with SEND. The University and College Union told us that “additional learning support funding is inadequate to create a fully inclusive, accessible learning environment.”159

68.More needs to be done to support adult learners with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). There are opportunities including supported internships and apprenticeships, and community learning provision. But these opportunities are limited, and support funding is insufficient.

69.The Department should work with the sector to assess what additional funding is needed to better support adult learners with SEND. The Department should then introduce a funding premium for adult learners with SEND to ensure there is fully inclusive, accessible provision at all levels.

Childcare for adult learners

70.We were particularly interested in the extent to which childcare poses a barrier to taking up learning. We heard some examples of excellent practice, for example the Northern College, a specialist adult community learning provider, offers a children’s centre on site so that parents and carers can take up learning.160 Overall, however, written evidence suggested that childcare is a barrier to participating in ASALL for those with caring responsibilities, particularly for adults from disadvantaged backgrounds.161

71.We heard that lack of support for childcare is a particular issue for parents and carers aspiring to access part-time higher education. Department-commissioned analysis of 2014–15 higher education learner data found that 36% of part-time undergraduate students in England had dependent children, compared to 9% of full-time students.162 Despite this, Professor Fraser told us that part-time students are not eligible for childcare grants and Parents’ Learning Allowance.163 Dr Pember told us:

If you are a young adult with a child and you want to do part-time HE, you have your childcare, your timing, your travel, you have to be able to maintain yourself in your job. All those areas, all those barriers need to be sorted out, so there needs to be a package there.164

We asked the Minister what thought she had given to providing additional support for childcare.165 The Minister highlighted the universal childcare offer of 30 hours per week and the childcare bursary but told us that the Department “has not looked further than that at having a specific childcare package”.166 Our predecessor Committee’s report Tackling disadvantage in the early years identified problems with the 30 hours childcare policy, specifically that it is “entrenching inequality rather than closing the gap”, and places strain on the availability of childcare places for disadvantaged children.167

72.Childcare poses a barrier for parents and carers aspiring to upskill and retrain. More needs to be done to support parents and carers to participate in adult education.

73.We recommend that childcare grants and Parents’ Learning Allowance are made available to part-time learners studying for a Higher Education qualification. The Government should look at where childcare might be a barrier and extend the 30 hour per week universal offer to unemployed or low-income adult learners, where the lack of such provision would prove to be a barrier towards training and employment.

Department data on community learning

74.Written evidence received during our inquiry identified concerns with the Department’s data on community learning. Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority told us that when their Adult Education Budget (AEB) was devolved, the community learning data transferred from the ESFA was “minimal”.168 Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s evidence noted that data related to community learning “is particularly variable, due in part to its non-regulated nature”.169 The Minister told us that the Department “has very little data on community learning and I have tried to get a lot more clarity, because it is devolved to a lot of local authorities.”170

Community learning funding

75.The community learning budget was combined into the newly created AEB in 2016, following the Spending Review 2015 settlement. In 2017/18 the community learning budget was 18% (£0.24 billion) of the total £1.34 billion AEB.171 Dr Pember told us that the community learning budget has been “capped at an arbitrary level for 10 years […] Funding values do not reflect the real cost of providing current qualifications, requiring increased class sizes and reduced access to support”.172 Dr Pember further suggested that the “reduction in overall funding and lack of investment has curtailed activity and reduced the support available to many vulnerable learners”.173 The complexity and bureaucracy of community learning funding is also an issue. There are multiple funding streams that providers can bid for; research by Dr Pember reports that an average community learning provider may have 10 different funding streams, with different funding rules and outcomes.174 The Centre for Social Justice highlights that this constitutes a “dizzying array of funding streams […] including, for example, the ESFA’s 16–19 study programme; 19+ AEB non-formula funding; 19+ AEB formula funding; 19+ advanced learner loans; 16+ apprenticeships levy funding; the ESF/Communities Lottery Fund; the DfE’s Flexible Learning Fund; Heritage Lottery Fund; the ESF/DWP’s Way2Work programme; and individual learner fees.”175

76.Dr Pember further suggested that stakeholders praised the flexibility of the non-formula funded element of the community learning budget and argued strongly for the retention of such flexibilities. The WEA told us that:

A funding model which restricts adult learning to gaining specific qualifications or to a narrow range of skills-for-employment outcomes will not increase participation and will fail to support many of those who are most vulnerable or disadvantaged. The greater the flexibility in entry points for adult learners, the more opportunity there is for people to take part, gain confidence and find self-direction in their learning.176

A strategy for community learning

77.The Minister agreed that community learning plays an important role in engaging the hardest to reach adults and supporting their progression, and told us:

I have visited a number of community learning institutions, meeting people who perhaps had not even thought that this was available for them, would not even have the confidence to walk through the door of a college, who have been helped to the point where they can overcome any barriers and get the basic skills. I have met many now doing level 4.177

Nonetheless, we were concerned by the Minister’s inability to set out a specific strategy and ambition for community learning, despite our repeated requests for her to do so when she appeared before the Committee.178 The Minister told us that “we are looking to make sure we have a system that […] is focused on and aligned with employment”.179 The Minister added that the Department’s strategy is to help learners “get access to overcoming some of the challenges they have with basic skills, access to training, more modular training, and more flexible training”.180 Notably, the Minister’s response was in direct contrast to what stakeholders told us about the purposes of community learning. Professor Holford suggested that policy “has undervalued adult learning for broader purposes.”181 Simon Parkinson told us, “If we are always talking about courses being badged solely as skill development … you are going to alienate the very people that you are describing”.182

78.Essex County Council will be relocating its adult community learning centre to Harlow town library, providing an example of planning policy that both utilises an existing building and brings the ACL provision to the heart of the town.183 We asked witnesses whether every town should have a community learning centre, and how this might link up with high street planning. Dr Pember told us:

There is coverage, but it is just not big enough. Also, where they used to be able to use school or college sites, so there was a centre, that infrastructure is not there now. If you said to certain people on the street, “Where is your nearest adult education centre?” they might not be able to pinpoint it. I think you are right, Robert: we need a badged centre in every community so people know where to go to, but we also need to keep some of the benefits of the present system, which is very agile, so if a community needs something, or a migrant community moves somewhere, we can put up a centre really quickly.184

79.Simon Parkinson highlighted the need for investment in community learning venues:

They are vital not just to adult learning, but to social cohesion. I would like to see investment in those community venues. I think the Department for Education has a significant capital budget that at the moment is used in campuses. Reprovision is perhaps something we could look at there. Then it is a matter of working with colleagues across DCMS and really thinking about, as we see the changing nature of our high streets, the potential to use venues that people are already accessing and getting over that fear of having to walk into a formal classroom. Why are we not using the venues that are in and among them already, that people are comfortable attending?185

80.Community learning appears to have been largely overlooked by the Department. The Department does not have sufficient oversight of what data is available on community learning. Nor are we confident that the Department has a good understanding of what provision exists nationally. The Department’s lack of strategic vision for community learning is concerning and suggests an underlying lack of insight into the benefits and value of community learning. An ambitious, long-term strategy for community learning provision and funding is needed.

81.The Department must work with the adult education sector to develop a better understanding of what data exists on community learning and where any gaps might be. This should include mapping and regularly publishing data on how many community learning centres exist nationally and where they are located. The Department must then set out an ambitious plan for community learning provision in every town, which should seek to make use of existing buildings. The Department should work with the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) to align its community learning strategy with MHCLG funding to rejuvenate town centres and high streets.

82.The community learning budget has been capped at an arbitrary level for ten years. Community learning funding is overly bureaucratic; an average community learning provider may have to negotiate up to ten different funding streams, all with different rules and outcomes. This places unnecessary strain on providers, and takes up time and resources that should be spent on delivery.

83.The Department must make the case for a three-year funding settlement for community learning at the next spending review. The Department should review and consolidate the many community learning funding streams to reduce unnecessary bureaucracy for providers.

126 Department for Education (ASL0012) Session 2019–21

127 Holex (ASL0003) Session 2019–21; Doncaster Adult Family Community Learning (ASL0046) Session 2017–19

129 Local Government Association. Learning for Life: the role of adult community education in developing thriving local communities, 27 October 2020. Some local authorities also share provision.

130 The Hounslow Adult & Community Education Service (ASL0018) Session 2017–19

131 Local Government Association (ASL0012) Session 2017–19; Westminster Adult Education Service (ASL0029) Session 2017–19

133 Institutes for Adult Learning (ASL0057) Session 2017–19

134 Workers’ Educational Association (ASL0009) Session 2019–21; Workers’ Educational Association Impact Report 2019, November 2019

135 Department for Education. Statistical data set: Community learning, 28 November 2019

136 Ipsos MORI, the Centre for Mental Health and Liz Lawson. Community learning mental health research project: Phase two evaluation report. October 2018

137 Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, National Learning and Work Institute. Measuring the impact of Community-Based English Language Provision: Findings from a Randomised Controlled Trial. March 2018

138 Workers’ Educational Association. Adult education works: Measuring the WEA effect. 2019

139 HM Government. Integrated Communities Action Plan. February 2019

141 House of Commons Library: Research Briefing: Adult ESOL in England, 25 April 2018

142 House of Commons Library: Research Briefing: Adult ESOL in England, 25 April 2018

145 Hertfordshire Adult and Family Learning Service (ASL0010) Session 2017–19; Hounslow Adult & Community Education Service (ASL0018) Session 2017–19

146 University of Derby (ASL0032) Session 2017–19

147 City of London Corporation (ASL0021) Session 2017–19

148 Learning, Training and Employment (LTE) Group (ASL0043) Session 2017–19

152 West London Alliance (ASL0016) Session 2017–19; London Borough of Camden (ASL0069) Session 2017–19

153 West London Alliance (ASL0016) Session 2017–19; Hounslow Adult & Community Education Service (ASL0018) Session 2017–19

154 Education Committee. First report of session 2019. Special Educational Needs and Disabilities, HC 20

155 Hertfordshire Adult and Family Learning Service (ASL0010) Session 2017–19

156 The Northern College (ASL0013) Session 2017–19

157 Department for Education (ASL0012) Session 2019–21

159 University and College Union (ASL0023) Session 2017–19

160 The Northern College (ASL0013) Session 2017–19

161 Young Women’s Trust (ASL0022) Session 2017–19; University and College Union (ASL0023) Session 2017–19; National Union of Students (ASL0038) Session 2017–19

162 Department for Education. Student Income and Expenditure Survey 2014/15: English Report, March 2018, p25

167 Education Committee. Ninth Report of Session 2017–19. Tackling disadvantage in the early years. HC 1006.

168 Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority (ASL0007) Session 2019–21

169 Greater Manchester Combined Authority (ASL0004) Session 2019–21

171 PQ, 216425. 11 February 2019

172 HOLEX (ASL0003) Session 2019–21

173 HOLEX (ASL0003) Session 2019–21

176 Workers’ Educational Association (ASL0009) Session 2019–21

181 Professor John Holford (ASL0076) Session 2017–19

183 Essex County Council. Harlow Town Library task group to implement ‘modern learning hub’, 22 October 2020; South East Local Enterprise Partnership. “Harlow Library”. 2020.




Published: 19 December 2020 Site information    Accessibility statement