Time to think outside the box on adult education services?
Updated: Apr 6
Mark Bandalli and Oliver Cappleman from Mutual Ventures ask – is now the time to think outside the box on adult education services and explore alternative delivery models?
The following article was distributed to the HOLEX national network, which is the membership body for local authority adult and community learning services.
As uncertainty continues to surround the future funding of local authority adult education services, many are now thinking creatively about how they can continue to deliver innovative, accessible and outcome driven learning opportunities. Exploring the option of setting up an independent social enterprise may provide some answers.
While the Spending Review for 2015-16 provides some short-term assurances around funding, a clear pattern is emerging. Priorities such as apprenticeships, traineeships and investment in skills continue to be supported by funding increases while funding for Community Learning, which accounts for the majority of adult education funding received by most local authorities, is set to reduce in real terms.
Compounding this funding pressure is a highly competitive private and charitable sector adult education market offering new and exciting learning opportunities. Many local authority based services struggle to convince learners that their offer can match or surpass that delivered elsewhere in the marketplace. This is often due to technical barriers such as the fact that few local authority based services have established an effective online presence. This is often due to corporate protocols restricting the ability to offer online enrolment or deliver accessible learning opportunities via the council’s website. Some are using online communication (such as Skype) to engage with learners but this tends to be driven by an individual staff member’s initiative, rather than a service wide strategy.
Whilst Learner Forums and Impact Surveys play a role in understanding the effectiveness of services, there is limited evidence of a wide spread dynamic engagement with learners which can influence the service offering in real time.
So how should local authority based services best prepare themselves for the future? An increasing number of Adult Education Services are considering establishing themselves as independent social enterprises or mutuals (in cases where the staff have control of the organisation). Some, such as Aspire in West Sussex, have already made the move, while others are preparing business plans and are involved in discussions with their local authority and with potential partners in the community. The obvious question that groups we support ask is: ‘Why would this have a positive impact on our service, staff, learners and stakeholders?’
By establishing as an independent social enterprise, the ownership and governance of the service can be designed to allow for those closest to the service to have the biggest say. Offering learners, staff and community organisations some genuine control of the organisation helps to bring communities closer to services. Whilst many Adult Education Services are involved in sub-contracting with local community and charity sector organisations, the opportunity to involve these important local institutions in the decision making of the new organisation is seen by many as too good to miss.
By empowering learners and staff to take a lead on service development, there is an immediate change in the mind set. The focus moves away from planning services based on anticipated levels of funding, and towards social entrepreneurialism. Informed by their knowledge of what works, what is needed, staff and learners are perfectly placed to design new services that meet the needs of the most vulnerable and maximise the level of social value achieved.
For many this may seem too distant an ambition – how can we run a business they ask? Most groups we work with identify business savvy as a gap in their expertise but this can be addressed by appointing new people to key roles (e.g. a business development or commercial director). It is also wise to appoint some Non-Executive Directors with commercial and financial. There are few challenges that will be faced that cannot be overcome.
Some of the technical barriers to going down this route have recently been removed. Changes to funding guidance enable independent organisations to receive funding directly from the SFA, effectively removing the local authority from the funding chain. This has acted as a catalyst for many across the sector to consider transitioning to independence.
Is it time to think outside the box for your service?
For more information or advice please contact Oliver Cappleman at firstname.lastname@example.org or on 07973742228