Adult discontent

Adult education, a lifeline for many, is under pressure from spending cuts, reports Charlotte Lytton

“There shouldn’t be an age limit on when you go to school,” says Paul Cross who, at the age of 35, decided to go back to college. Having spent two decades away from the education system and two years on benefits, an opportunity to join a rail academy in his hometown of Newcastle means he is now on course for a well-paid future – one that, for many years, seemed out of reach.

But Cross’s case looks set to be an increasingly rare one following the government’s adult education sector funding cuts of 24 per cent over the next academic year. This means that an estimated 400,000 fewer students will be able to attend college in 2016 as bursaries, course provisions and lecturers’ salaries bear the weight of dwindling resources.

“This enormous cut in funding will decimate further education provision, leave millions of the most vulnerable adults without access to any opportunity to improve their education or retrain and put thousands of FE jobs at risk,” warned educators from the Association of Colleges, National Union of Students and the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) in a campaign earlier this year. Their petition, which amassed 42,500 signatures, was handed in to Downing Street last month but the government has shown no sign of reconsidering its position.

“The cuts to adult skills funding will be devastating for many courses which help people get back into learning,” says the UCU’s general secretary, Sally Hunt. “If the government wants to achieve its aims for growing apprenticeships and the economy, it needs to invest in the full range of learning opportunities so that everyone has the chance to improve their skills, confidence and productivity.”

For Cross, returning to education would not have been possible had the cuts already been in place. He took out a loan to help his studies, and receives a £40-a-month bursary to aid his travel costs. “Some people wouldn’t think £40 a month was enough, but it’s really helped me,” he says. “If I’d have had to find the money I needed upfront, I wouldn’t have had the chance to go back to college.

“It’s a disgrace because there are people like me who weren’t very good when they were at school, who have found it easier now but won’t be able to get into further education. People should be able to start afresh, and help should be put in place for that.”

Adult Education Pic
Lee Hughes: “the college pushed me that bit further”

Cross describes his initial experience of education as “horrible” – a feeling Lee Hughes, 31, knew only too well. “I wasn’t engaged at school and ended up leaving with no qualifications. In the years after I left, I always felt I hadn’t achieved my potential – I knew I was clever, but I felt like I’d missed my chance.”

When Hughes left school at 17, he fell in with a crowd who drank heavily and took drugs – issues that plagued his life for seven years. “Heroin just took a grip on me,” he says. “I tried many times to stop, but if your head’s not in it and your heart’s not in it, you’ll keep using. It was pretty bleak.”

He eventually got clean after fearing that his young son could become aware of what was going on, and went to work in a call centre. During his six years there, Hughes received a number of disciplinaries – due in large part to the fact he was often reading history books instead of working. After being pulled in to speak to his manager, who joked that she’d sack him if he didn’t get involved with further education, he enrolled the next week. Undertaking an intensive nine-month Access to Learning course was “really difficult at first because I’d never been in that environment” but soon “things just clicked”, he says.

“To have people acknowledge and nurture your intelligence is just brilliant,” he says of his time at Northern College, Barnsley, where he was also president of the student union. “I just needed that little bit of light at the end of the tunnel, and the atmosphere among the staff and students gave me that.”

Hughes had hoped to pursue a career in teaching but an opportunity to speak in front of David Blunkett further broadened his ambitions. The former home secretary was so impressed by his speech that he later took Hughes aside and told him to consider a career in politics.

“It felt like every time I reached my peak, the college pushed me that bit further. That’s why it’s so frustrating that the cuts mean these opportunities may no longer exist. It’s crazy, counterproductive and wrong.”

“Education saved my life in more ways than one.”

UCU estimates that more than 4,500 jobs are currently at risk, and that colleges with a focus on further education will be facing losses of 15 per cent from their overall budget.

“The cuts stink,” agrees 48-year-old Andrea Sanders. “Education saved my life in more ways than one, and what the government is doing to it is lousy.”

After leaving school and finding work in a textile factory, Sanders hit a negative spiral when she was made redundant exactly 20 years to the day after starting her first shift. She had struggled with mental health problems for a long time without realising exactly what they were, but after losing her job and then being burgled, “the fly just hit the windscreen”. She developed clinical depression, leaving her unable to eat, drink or wash.

But five years later, in 2008, she began pursuing adult learning. “I hadn’t done an essay in 30 years. But I gave it a go, and my tutors saw potential in me that I didn’t believe I had.”

Her studies led to placements and a job as a social care worker. “As soon as I walked through the door, I felt at home. Work has become my happy place.”

It is distressing then to consider how many success stories like hers may never reach fruition as a result of the cuts, and how many people who could achieve so much with just a little push in the right direction will not get that chance.

“I had the phrase ‘when you need something to believe in, start with yourself’ tattooed on my arm,” Sanders says. “When I got it done, I didn’t believe it, but I knew at some point I would. And now I do.”

Main photo: Paul Cross went on to success after adult education

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