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Adult Learners

Volume 475: debated on Thursday 15 May 2008

4. How many adult learners were enrolled on courses in England at the latest date for which figures are available. (205663)

In 2006-07, around 3.2 million learners aged 19 plus were on Learning and Skills Council-funded further education, Train to Gain, work-based learning courses and former adult and community learning courses. Since 1997, our investment in the further education skills sector has increased by 52 per cent. in real terms. That means that, since 2001, more than 1.75 million adults have gained a literacy and numeracy qualification and, in the last full year, the number of adults participating in skills for life courses increased by nearly 50,000 to more than 350,000. Those participating in level 2 courses increased by nearly 40,000 to 470,000.

I thank the Secretary of State for that response. He knows that the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education published a survey that revealed that the number of adults participating in education is falling. My local college, Sutton College of Liberal Arts—SCOLA—has experienced a 10 per cent. drop in the past 12 months. Adult learners week, which starts on Saturday, will reveal the wide range of exciting and interesting courses that are available in the UK. Does the Secretary of State accept that Government policies for getting adults to participate in education are not working? Is not it time for a rethink?

No, I do not accept that. For the reasons that I have given, there has been a massive expansion in the number of adults doing the things that transform people’s lives—learning to read, being able to handle basic numeracy, having the qualifications that enable them to get a job and progress in their work. We have been right to concentrate our efforts on that.

However, we also acknowledge that there is clearly an intrinsic value in learning for its own sake. Part of that is funded through our budget and the ring-fenced budget for adult and community learning. Much of it is funded through other Departments, such as free access to museums, galleries and archives. Much of it is developed informally and in the voluntary sector, with major organisations such as the National Trust or Government bodies such as English Nature being big providers of adult education.

In the consultation on informal adult learning, we are looking at the range of activities that, during the past 10 or 15 years, have transformed the ways in which adults learn. We will introduce proposals to strengthen that process in the future, not weaken it, and to engage not just my Department, but the whole of government in promoting that type of learning.

Will my right hon. Friend look at the anomaly whereby the non-European Union spouse of a UK citizen who settles in the UK has to wait one year before being eligible for home tuition fees when enrolling on a college course to learn English? That runs counter to the Government’s commendable encouragement of new immigrants to learn our language.

I think that I take a different view from my hon. Friend on that subject. People should be free to marry whom they wish to marry, but I believe that someone who brings a spouse to this country who does not speak English has a responsibility to their partner and the rest of the community to assist in their learning of English. I do not take my hon. Friend’s view that that is a matter for the state to subsidise. We should say to people, “Bring your spouse here, but you should ensure that they have adequate English to participate fully before they come, and from the day they arrive.”

Cutting through the Secretary of State’s verbiage, he must be aware that the number of publicly funded places in adult education has fallen by a staggering 1.4 million in two years. He says that that is because money is being spent on Train to Gain and skills for life, but he must know that those cuts are disproportionately affecting the very people those programmes are designed to help. Participation in adult education by skilled manual workers has fallen by 7 per cent. in a single year, wiping out the progress of the previous decade. Can the Secretary of State tell us why, if his policies are such a success, the total number of people on Government-funded programmes, including Train to Gain, actually fell last year?

To measure the total number of courses is a very poor indicator of success in this respect. It is quite ridiculous to say that a one or two-year course, leading to a vocational qualification at level 2 or level 3, should be given the same weighting as a four or six-week short course, undertaken with great satisfaction but purely for the joy of learning. We have done exactly the right thing by emphasising spending on those parts of education that equip people with the basics to get on in society and the skills in order to participate in work. To take the total figure of funded, short, informal adult education courses, and to ignore all the other education funded by the Government, and the progress on work-based learning, is wrong.

In Stockport, many older students returning to further education find the financial support provided by the adult learning grant very valuable. Can the Secretary of State tell me what more his Department is doing to advertise that grant so that more older people are aware that they will get financial support if they return to further education?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing the adult learning grant to the attention of the House. It was developed in pilot form in previous years, and extended nationally from September, and it is now making a huge difference to people’s ability to study. We are at the stage in the year where we have just over two terms’ experience of the promotion of the grant, and I can assure my hon. Friend that I and the Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), will be looking at the lessons learned to ensure that we achieve the maximum possible take-up of that grant.