New data compiled by the County Councils Network (CCN) reveals that the number of adults taking part in adult education, training, traineeships and apprenticeships in county areas last year dropped by almost 200,000 people – a fall of 19% – compared to 2018.
This is despite high-profile government programmes designed to incentivise participation, with schemes like the Apprenticeship Levy not only failing to arrest the decline but seeing fewer people take up apprenticeships in England’s counties since its 2017 introduction.
CCN says that this national approach to adult education and skills is no longer working and have called on the government to equip county and unitary authorities with new powers and budgets to address this half-decade of decline.
The research was covered by the Financial Times over the weekend, which you can read here.
Last year, there were six devolution deals agreed in county areas, all of which included he introduction of a directly-elected mayor or leader and devolution of adult education powers and budgets. However, in 2023 there has not been a single deal agreed, sparking concerns that the devolution agenda is losing momentum.
This is despite the Levelling Up White Paper promising to devolve adult education budgets through new ‘county deals’ with county authorities – without the need for area to accept a directly-elected mayor or leader.
Alongside completing existing and new directly elected leader and mayoral devolution deals, the CCN is now calling on the government to fast track its devolution agenda in more county areas, ending the sole focus mayoral deals to allow more areas to agree deals in areas which are not suited to a mayor, in order to give local leaders the tools to address skills shortages.
With England currently facing both a significant labour and skills shortage, the CCN says that time is of the essence to equip local areas with the tools they need to incentivise participation and upskill residents. Councils are best placed to develop adult education in their areas as they know the areas where skills gaps are located locally as well as employment shortages.
The network has also called on the government to go further, including devolving the Apprenticeship Levy to local areas rather than it being nationally set. Whilst national spend on apprenticeships and workplace learning has increased from £1.8bn in 2017/18 to £2.3bn in 2022/23 this has not arrested the decline in apprenticeships so councils urge a ‘local knows best’ approach instead.
The Apprenticeship Levy was introduced in 2017 to increase apprenticeships, but in county areas there has been a 6% decline in the five years since its introduction, with over 20,000 fewer people taking part in apprenticeships in 2022 compared to 2017.
The CCN says that the government should also restore the adult education budget to its 2010 level of £3bn a year. In 2021-22 spend on classroom-based adult education dropped to £1.44bn last year. This includes traineeships, another function which could be effectively devolved, the network argues.
For classroom-based adult education and skills, there has been a 21% decline in participation over the last five years, with 80,000 fewer people taking part in county areas in 2022 compared to 2017. Community learning has seen the biggest decline – a drop of 42% or 83,000 people over the period.
In total, participation in adult education and skills across England’s counties has declined by 19% between 2017 and 2022, with 185,000 fewer people taking part in 2022 compared to 2017.
Cllr Tim Oliver, Chairman of the County Councils Network, said:
“Despite clear evidence showing the benefits of adult education and the government’s efforts to improve numbers, there has been a half-decade of decline in participation in England’s counties, with the number of people falling by a fifth over the last five years: contributing to the present skills and labour shortages in many local areas.
“Well-intentioned national reforms, such as the Apprenticeship Levy, are no longer working, having failed to address the decline in apprenticeships. We need all hands to the pump to kick-start the economy, and we are calling for an adult education revolution where powers are devolved to local areas so we can devise local solutions to local challenges.
“The government must fast-track further devolution deals as soon as possible, including agreements without the need for a mayor, in order to equip local areas with the adult education budgets and powers to incentivise local participation and address skills shortages. But we are calling for ministers to be bold too and devolve the Apprenticeship Levy to local areas as well as restoring the adult education budget to 2010 levels.”
Notes to editor
Adult Education participation in county areas – 2017/18 compared to 2021/22
|Education and training||379,530||299,740||79,790||-21%|
|Total adult education||953,050||767,950||185,100||-19%|