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Education spending - adult education and skills

Adult education class

Adult education and skills

Total day-to-day spending on adult education and skills amounted to £3.5 billion at the latest count in 2019–20. This includes about £1.5 billion for classroom- or community-based adult education, a large element of which is devolved to city regions. Total spending on apprenticeships (across all ages) stood at about £2 billion.

Overall spending across adult education, apprenticeships and work-based learning fell by 35% or by £1.9 billion in real terms between 2009–10 and 2019–20. Total spending on classroom-based adult education (i.e. excluding apprenticeships and work-based learning) was at a high point of about £4.4 billion in 2003–04. It then fell by about one-third between 2003–04 and 2009–10 and by a further 50% or £1.5 billion between 2009–10 and 2019–20. Taken together, this represents an overall fall of two-thirds since 2003–04. This has partly been made up for by a 50% or nearly £700 million increase in spending on apprenticeships since 2009–10 (which here includes young people as well as adults).

Therefore, there have been large falls in spending on adult education over time, which remain even after accounting for a shift towards spending on apprenticeships.

The current government has repeatedly stated the need to improve adult skills provision. With this in mind, it allocated a range of additional funding streams in the 2021 Spending Review:

  • An extra £550 million for adult education in 2024–25 as compared with 2019–20.
  • £170 million in increased apprenticeship funding by 2024–25.
  • About £190 million per year for a new programme called ‘Multiply’ to improve numeracy skills across the UK.

Together this amounts to about £900 million in extra day-to-day spending on adult education and apprenticeships in 2024–25 as compared with 2019–20. In addition to this future spending, it is worth noting that the government has indicated that it will shortly reform how learners access funding for post-16 education as part of the new Lifelong Loan Entitlement.

As shown in Figure 1, spending on adult education and apprenticeships is projected to rise by 30% between 2019–20 and 2024–25. However, this only reverses a fraction of past cuts; combined spending on adult education and apprenticeships will still be 15% below 2009–10 levels. Spending on adult education on its own (i.e. excluding growing levels of spending on apprenticeships) will still be one-third below 2009–10 levels even with the additional funding announced in the 2021 Spending Review. 

Source: Spending Review 2021; Britton et al. (2020); HM Treasury, GDP deflators, October 2021; Office for Budget Responsibility, Economic and Fiscal Outlook, October 2021.

While total spending may not reach the levels seen in the past, this does not necessarily mean it will be insufficient to deliver the government’s Lifetime Skills Guarantee. A variety of factors – some beyond the control of government – determine the success of skills policy. Yet one major issue that makes it difficult to gauge the potential impact of this spending package is the government’s repeated lack of clarity on skills policy and spending.

One prominent example is the National Skills Fund. Following on from a manifesto commitment, the government has promoted the National Skills Fund as a £2.5 billion fund to support adults with training and gaining skills. The 2021 Spending Review allocated £550 million in 2024–25 as part of the National Skills Fund. Yet it is entirely unclear how money will be spread across years and whether the fund has been exhausted. Similarly, there remain questions about the design of the forthcoming Lifelong Loan Entitlement. All of this continued uncertainty creates issues for providers of adult education and skills training.

Figure 1 does not include the new ‘Multiply’ programme as it is not yet clear how this funding will be spread across years or the nations of the UK. Assuming it is spread equally across years and England receives funding of nearly £160 million based on its population share (84%), this would represent a further 3% increase in funding for adult education in 2024–25. However, the Multiply programme is a curious programme for a number of reasons. First, it is a UK-wide programme, despite education being a devolved matter. Second, it also represents a partial return to funding for basic skills, which was significantly reduced after 2010.

Related work

Briefing note
In this briefing note, we assess the key policy announcements made in the DfE’s recent ‘Skills for Jobs’ White Paper around the funding of post-18 education.