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The Cost of Living Crisis: what does it mean for further and adult education? - Rob Smith

7th December 2022

By Professor Rob Smith, Professor of Education at the School of Education and Social Work at Birmingham City University

‘It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.’ Charles Dickens (1859) A Tale of Two Cities

We are living in a time of great uncertainty. There is an unsettledness in the political, economic and social climate of many countries in the so-called “developed” world that is unlike anything I can remember. Bauman (2001) talks about “liquid modernity” as a historical effect of the instability created by market-based, individualised and technologically-enabled environments. If this is what we are experiencing, then it isn’t just the shape-changing fluidity of a flexible and increasingly online (working) life; rather, it feels more as though we are trapped inside the liquid of one of those snow globes and someone is giving it a vigorous shake.

The signs have not been good for more than a decade. I first heard the word “austerity” when it was imposed by the International Monetary Fund and thereby triggered riots in Sudan where I was working in 1983. Overnight, the price of bread, sugar and cooking oil almost doubled. The Sudanese government were told to stop growing tomatoes, groundnuts and other food and concentrate instead on cash crops for export: cotton, sugar and tobacco (Brown 2008). Three years later there was a famine of biblical proportions just across the border in Ethiopia. So much for austerity.

For the people of Birmingham where I live, the visible effects of the cuts to public spending over the last decade have included a dramatic increase in the number of homeless people. If you have driven through Birmingham, and stopped at a traffic light, you will have encountered one or more of them, moving along the line of cars with a begging cup. I know several of them by name. In 2016, at the local allotments, up to six people were living in the scattered sheds of unusable plots at any one time. Like the current people begging at our road junctions, they were of all ages and their stories the best available evidence that the austerity measures introduced had a human cost. Imposed in answer to the public deficit and based on a flawed cornershop model of neoliberal economics which operates on the assumption of an inextricable link between public expenditure and tax revenue (See Murphy 2015), austerity measures cut public expenditure drastically. As we know, the reduction of resource impacted across all public services, leaving many in a worryingly weakened state when the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

Now, with a price-hike in fuel and the effects of Brexit apparently kicking in – with the UK experiencing a higher level of inflation than any other G7 country (Majid 2022), even the most boosterish government perspectives are acknowledging that a cost of living crisis is looming. But what does such a crisis mean for further and adult education in the coming months and years?

In my view, the cost of living crisis is nothing new in further and adult education. Further and adult education has been battling with the effects of tightened budgets and the impact of cuts to public expenditure for twelve years already. This crisis will simply lead to an intensification of existing (often appalling) conditions. If that is to be avoided, if a difference is to be made, that will only happen as a result of a collective effort: providers coming together to force the government to acknowledge and fund the extraordinary work providers have undertaken in addressing poverty, mental ill-health and the other associated social ills caused by austerity and made worse by the pandemic. In what follows, I will draw on some recent strands of research I have been involved in to illustrate this point.

In July, Professor Vicky Duckworth and I had a book published that presents the findings of a project that has lasted almost five years. Transformative Teaching and Learning in Further Education (Smith and Duckworth 2022) tells the story of the Transforming Lives project. My research had up to that point been mainly focused on fuelling policy critique: presenting (often collaboratively with practising further and adult education teachers) the grim reality of the impact of the funding, accountability and performance system on teaching and learning and teachers and managers’ work in further and adult education settings (e.g. Smith 2005, 2007A, 2007B; Literacy Study Group 2008, 2010, Dhillon et al 2011). Vicky’s work had focused on how further and adult education had offered life-changing opportunities for adults whose experience of school had often been about being over-looked and / or written-off (e.g. Duckworth 2013, Duckworth and Ade-Ojo 2016).

For me, this was a significant shift in emphasis. I have to confess that, throughout my doctoral research and throughout much of the 2000s, I believed (naïvely, I would now say) that policy makers hadn’t yet grasped the negative effects of the funding and accountability regime that they had established; that they didn’t appreciate the damage it was doing to the practices of teaching and learning or the funding and data-driven cultures it had given rise to. Between 2007 and 2015, most of my research was founded on the principle that a reliable evidence-base might contribute to bringing about change.

What I have come to believe, partly as a consequence of the hardening attitudes we have seen since 2010, is that the experiences I was researching and documenting were known about, they were understood and tolerated as acceptable within the orthodoxy of a market-based system. In brief, I came to the conclusion that the phenomena I knew were disfiguring educational cultures and practices in further and adult education were known about, but that those with the wherewithal to make changes and address those issues, didn’t seem to care.

Time then to change tack. The Transforming Lives project was about fashioning an alternative set of stories that presented the worth, the value and the preciousness of further and adult education. As both Vicky and I had been further and adult education teachers, this would be on our own terms. The research is founded on the stories of people whose lives have been changed by attending a college or training provider. The stories are all distinctively individual. For some participants, like that of David, a young father from a traveller background, the transformation was about learning to read so he could properly enjoy bedtime stories with his son (Smith and Duckworth 2022, p76-8). For others, like Claire, it was about understanding the social, political and economic forces that had shaped their lives to date and understanding the world in a new and different way (Smith and Duckworth 2022 p79-80). The project was founded on representing a positive, affirming approach to further and adult education pedagogy that takes account of students’ biographies, their language, gender, cultural and class background and sees these aspects of identity as the building blocks for learning and, from there, leads to real educational growth and personal development.

But while undertaking the research, we gathered evidence of the work colleges do on a day-to-day basis to address the failings in current social policy that shape the lives of further and adult education students and often constitute a barrier to learning and achievement.

For example, Jacqui, a senior leader in a Birmingham college, talked about a number of college initiatives specifically to target and recruit “vulnerable” and “disaffected” young people. Some of this provision was sports-focused, the idea being to attract and engage marginalised young people with an entry level course as a bridge into educational experiences that in many cases ended up as life-changing. Jacqui explained how these courses had previously been funded, but now the college was unable to find funding and had to run scaled-down provision.

Our service… it’s half social work and half teaching. I mean who would pick up the pieces if we weren’t here…? Mental health is massive, it’s getting bigger. Social work. We find students places to live. We do all that wraparound service as well… (Colleges) tend to be community hubs… a part of the community. I go back to mental health and loneliness – these are serious and growing things and further education is one of the only places that anybody can access, where people can interact and improve themselves. Without it, where do people without qualifications go?

The “wraparound” services offered by the college are plugging gaps left by the withdrawal of public funding for services like youth and community work. Jacqui sees the pastoral work provided by teaching staff as fundamental, even though this aspect of further and adult education work is not acknowledged by funders or government. She also explained how these wraparound services were at risk due to funding cuts:

What they have done is cut our funding and our ability now to go out and run taster programmes… We used to get European funding for it and government funding… I’ve put classes on in community centres in their areas… we’ve done all of that extra work… but the cuts mean it’s less and less. Cutting the funding now, all you’re doing: what it’s going to cost in national health and health and social care!

Our conversations with Jacqui painted a picture of college provision that is providing important support for people from marginalised and low-income households, patching the holes caused by the removal of a whole range of local authority and charitable resource: the failure of social policy, and doing all this despite existing inadequate funding arrangements.

This is just one example of the permanent cost of living crisis that colleges have been locked in for the past twelve years.

Other research that Vicky and I have undertaken into leadership and social justice in further and adult education produced a lot more evidence of the same kind. If there is, at the moment, a denial at the heart of government of the consequences and effects of poverty on communities, then our report Leadership, Further Education and Social Justice (Smith and Duckworth 2020), funded by FETL, found plenty of evidence for it.

We developed three case studies of colleges whose senior leaders saw dealing with the effects of social injustice as central to the college’s work. Dealing with the impact of poverty was a strong theme in the data across all three colleges. At one of the few remaining residential adult education providers, the principal saw meeting the needs of people who had been let down by existing systems as key. A pedagogical approach that engages with the whole student is an essential starting point:

Many of our students are a result of failures in the system, in whichever way shape or form, but for all of their lives that’s been individualised to: ‘You’re the problem’. So that might have been at school... (A)ctually lots of issues that come to bear in adulthood are as a result of poverty or lack of education… So, some of what we try to do is also about contextualising power and inequality so that people can start to realise that actually some of the things that have happened to them in their lives it’s a consequence of the society and the systems in which we live. (Principal)

Our contention in the Transforming Lives book is that this shifting of the stigma experienced by students with negative prior educational experiences is an essential feature of successful learning in further and adult education. This completely cuts across the individualised meritocratic perspectives that dovetail so snugly with the competitive marketisation that structures our education system at the moment. In the coming crisis, this kind of pedagogy will be crucial.

The FETL report revealed one of the case study colleges had introduced several initiatives to address poverty directly. The educational experience offered by colleges frequently capitalises on the background of staff in this. Staff from the locality are likely to connect well with students, having a contextualised understanding of the range of issues they face. The college provides a free breakfast for many students every morning. The pastoral needs are so great that a system of student support tutors has been developed to help keep students on track in their studies. Indeed, such systems proliferate across further and adult education providers.

The institution’s interventions address the most basic needs. For example, in one subject area, the college funds uniforms for the entire 16–18 cohort on a Level 2 course. The explanation for this was as follows:

[T]his year in my centre, we’ve implemented a uniform… because that was becoming an issue that people were coming in with the same clothes on or they weren’t coming in because they didn’t have clothes to wear, you know, like they didn’t have any clean clothes or whatever. (Senior manager)

Another member of staff elaborated:

The driving force has been the placements… if you’ve got a student who hasn’t got many clothes and the clothes she has got are tiny little crop tops… she’s going into placement and being told that’s not appropriate… they might not have the money to go and buy two white tops and a pair of pants and a pair of shoes they wouldn’t wear at any other point. (Teacher)

In addressing these issues of poverty, college staff also went to considerable lengths to do so in a sensitive manner, being conscious of the stigma attached to coming from a low-income background and/ or to specific local areas with a reputation:

We are highlighted across the whole country [as] one of the most deprived areas in the country, which is quite a negative thing for the learners. It’s something they talk about. (Teacher)

Staff in this college identified a burgeoning issue of the increasing number of students with mental health and well-being issues, something echoed in some forthcoming research I’ve been involved in (Gadsby and Smith, forthcoming). This increasing prevalence required the college to step in to fill a vacuum created by the removal of other services and provision:

All the additional support that they need. They’re the types of things that are being cut left, right and centre, you know, like all the mental health support that was out there… the youth work – it’s gone, it’s just not there. (Senior Manager)

The defunding of local authorities and (through that) charitable provision caused by austerity effectively forces colleges to field the consequences with their students. And colleges’ best efforts in this regard are constrained by unfairly low levels of funding.

What we’re doing is working within a funding envelope for a young person, regardless of what their actual demand is, because if a young person is on a Level 3 programme and is a high-flyer, they get the same amount of funding as somebody who has got a lot of needs… So, inevitably, there’s a lot more work that needs to go in. Now, surely there should be something that says: the more of Type A learners you’ve got the less funding you need…? There is some postcode and there is an IMD (Index Multiple Deprivation) whereby they do uplift funding but it’s fairly modest really, if I’m honest, and, again, it’s one of those things that has been frozen. (Senior manager)

Teaching and learning at the college carries with it this additional work and resource requirement. The cost of living crisis will intensify demands on staff time to address these needs. When politicians talk about “levelling up” unless we assume the eradication of all poverty as a prerequisite (which I for one would welcome and pay for via taxes), otherwise, this would mean the distribution across all educational settings (including independent schools) of this variety, level and intensity of need. The passage above instead suggests that uplifts have not kept pace with the increased poverty.

Putting aside any moral questions around the state’s responsibility for meeting the basic needs of all of its citizens in this, one of the top ten wealthiest countries in the world, it’s important to note the preventative benefits of this “pastoral” work. The fact is: the cost will be picked up somewhere in the future and, one suspects, the more tardy the response, the higher the cost will be.

In the meantime though, colleges and other providers are picking up the tab. As a consequence of the cost of living crisis, we can expect the volume of this work to increase exponentially. Pastoral teams and college finances will be stretched and teachers will buckle under the pressure of dealing with the emotional and behavioural fall-out. The knock-on effect of that will also be reflected in levels of retention and achievement. College teachers already spend an inordinate amount of time chasing up student attendance. That needle will move into the red. The bureaucratic burden that much of time outweighs the rewards of actual teaching will become even more onerous. Staff sickness and absences are likely to increase.

One of my current doctoral students is a senior manager at a local college. He told me that in his area (construction) in the last academic year he had had to exclude more students than in the previous five years put together. He saw these behavioural issues as a product of lockdown exacerbated by the social and economic deprivation being experienced by many of the households in the area. I don’t believe his is an exceptional story. Staff in providers across the country are already at breaking point after two years struggling through the pandemic.

What other consequences are there of the continuation of the current starvation diet of the funding regime during a cost-of-living crisis? Clearly, staff recruitment and retention are bound to be affected. For vocational courses, the incentives for working in further education are already minimal. Recent research undertaken by the AoC (AoC 2022) has identified that colleges are already suffering shortages of key staff in construction, engineering, IT and computing:

‘Around three-quarters of colleges in England are unable to recruit the staff needed to teach technical and digital subjects

Three-quarters of colleges said the main reason they were struggling to fill positions was that qualified candidates have been offered better pay elsewhere

40% reported being forced to cancel courses because of a lack of staff.’ (AoC 2022)

All the talk of “excellence” and “world class skills” is empty rhetoric if pay is so low that teachers for these subject areas can’t be recruited. Staff are not in it for the money, but many are already on their knees. With morale already on the precipice, being unable to manage financially may see many leaving the profession out of self-preservation.

The political perspectives that informed the imposition of austerity measures have also decisively shaped initial teacher education and consequences will flow from that. In 2010, the then education secretary Michael Gove made a speech (Gove 2010) in which he stated that teaching was a “craft… best learnt as an apprentice observing a master craftsman or woman”. By identifying it as such, Gove was able to assert the importance of learning through experience in the classroom. What followed was a policy direction driven by an orthodoxy that teacher education needed to be based in educational settings: schools and colleges rather than HE.

Gove was instrumental in setting up alternative, depoliticised research organisations. He also championed a “what works” agenda and, broadly speaking, an “anyone can teach” attitude. This laid the ground for the infamous Lingfield Report (Lingfield 2012) that revoked the need for a teaching qualification for further and adult education teachers that had been mandatory since 2007. I think it’s reasonable to see Lingfield as a milestone in further and adult education teachers’ de-professionalisation. Teachers’ employment has certainly been more precarious since (UCU 2016).

I suggest Lingfield simply needs to be seen as part of the austerity agenda. It was never about quality, it was about reducing budgets; in this case, government funding for the Institute for Learning.

Up until July 2015, I was working as a teacher educator on a PGCE for would-be further and adult education teachers. Each year, we recruited around a hundred hopefuls and had a partnership across several colleges in and around Birmingham and the Black Country that supported a part time Cert Ed course – or equivalent (DTTLS, DET etc). On the PGCE, the course was intense. Students spent two days a week in colleges on placement and two days at university. They were observed by personal tutors from the university and by mentors in colleges. The course was founded on critical reflective practice (Brookfield 1995).

One of modules was called Politics, Policy and Practice. As part of this, I used to invite a curriculum manager from one of our partner colleges in the Black Country to come in and talk to the cohort about further education funding. It was in the third year of this arrangement that I overheard some of the students discussing what they called The Talk of Death. The input was impacting seriously on morale. It was a Plato's Cave moment. Or to use a more current analogy, a Morpheus (from the film The Matrix) moment. I had to weigh up the benefits of giving the students the unvarnished truth about how funding-driven further and adult education had become under the existing system. As Morpheus, I had to decide whether or not the PGCE curriculum should offer them the blue pill or the red pill.

My message to our students ten years ago was to take the red pill, to stare grim reality in the face and to take the long view: a more humble version of the Teach First approach with the long-term aim of getting a full-time permanent post on a poor salary, rather than to become a highly paid employee of Deutsche Bank or KPMG. Take visiting lecturer roles first in order to get your foot in the door. Then look for fractional or full-time appointments. Work hard to make a positive impression. Show willing. Show commitment and reliability. In the longer term, once you have established who you are and how you practise as a teacher, gather like-minded people around yourself. Gather people who share your values, the values that put students first, that view assessment as a necessary evil but not as the be-all and end-all. Try to protect students’ interests against the pressures of the dominant funding accountability and performativity apparatus.

A decade on, and I believe a full, frank picture of further and adult education funding would result in mass withdrawal from the course.

Of course, austerity has been followed by Covid-19 and now we face further imminent tribulations. The challenges that the pandemic has brought with it have been enormous. Now, many people are re-evaluating their work/life balance and the Great Resignation has become a thing. According to Worth and Faulkner’s research into schools, one of the causes of this is teachers’ pay that has decreased in value by between 7 and 9 per cent in real terms (Worth and Faulkner-Ellis 2022, p4). If this is true for schools, then the gap between school and college teachers’ pay (of around £9 000), means that retaining teachers in further and adult education is likely to be affected even more adversely.

The struggle to recruit new staff and then retain them is likely to be with us for some time. Because most further and adult education teachers have simply not had a pay-rise for more than a decade. An astonishing and unacceptable situation for a part of our education system that is so tightly controlled (and so tightly bound up with our nation’s future prosperity). Just as with nurses, we can expect to see further and adult education teachers having to access foodbanks in the coming years. Many researchers, practitioners and scholars in further and higher education have sought to shrug off the Cinderella label that has been attached to the sector’ for decades and to draw on different versions of the fairy tale (for example, Daley et al. 2015). This has been motivated by a laudable desire to celebrate the positive things about further and adult education, to champion the broader social benefits that (though unmeasured and unacknowledged) are at least as important as the ‘skills’ it helps students to equip themselves with. I remember the early years of incorporation vividly: the changes we witnessed in the style of leadership in the college where I worked, the feel of culture change, being told that the new dispensation was “the real world” and that people needed to “get on board”. Then in the emerging binarist environment of “them and us”, the meteoric rise of people on the basis of the magnitude of their ambition and their willingness to buy in to the new order rather than on grounds of their ability, experience or integrity. I remember the rambunctious, chalk-stripe suited leader of the College Employers’ Forum stating how changes to funding and the need for efficiencies meant massive redundancies were a matter of “simple economics” and how the “honeymoon period for further education is drawing to a close” (THES 1994).

With occasional brief respites, (notably the well-funded Skills for Life programme which championed lifelong learning), there has been no let-up in imposition, the tightening of funding and change: the kind of change that demands a total re-think of practice, organisation, focus and institutional culture. There have been new policy emphases, white elephant qualifications and re-configured professional standards. With each incoming administration the rhetoric has been mighty: further and adult education has again and again been positioned at the “heart” of government plans to reform either the vexed relationship between education / training and employment or for addressing the nation’s problematic low levels of productivity.

My question is this: if further and adult education is so important, if skills are so central in the realisation of prosperity going forward, then why have governments since 2010 targeted it for spending cuts? If further and adult education is such a key player in the realisation of economic competitiveness in the global economy, then why have the governments of the last 12 years signally failed to provide anything approaching a reasonable level of funding?

It’s time to name the failure and tackle the prejudices that have haunted further and adult education policy for the past twelve years. A key consequence of this extraordinary playgrounding of “sector” policy has been the continual undermining of the professional identity of its teachers. That has to be addressed: financially. The cost-of-living crisis to come will only foreground more the importance of the broad social benefits that colleges offer, their rootedness in local communities and their ability to address local needs.

Despite all of that, a flame of social justice still flickers at the heart of most colleges. It is this flame that will fuel the effort that will be needed in the coming months and years as colleges provide care and support for students and attempt to compensate for the failed social policies and widening wealth gap that are now features of our national landscape. It is this motivating force that will still be there in the hearts of people long after the nebulous, speculative concepts that sustain neoliberal economics (e.g. monetarism, austerity, quantitative easing, productivity, taxpayers’ money, accountability etc etc) have been revealed as bolstering a socially stratified and de-humanising model of further and adult education and of society beyond that.

This is a time of great uncertainty. But one thing it seems to me we can be certain about. Unless the people who work in further and adult education, who love it, who spend their working hours and their leisure time railing about what has happened and is happening to it, unless they stand together and demand a fair and adequate funding settlement for the challenging times ahead, then further and adult education will wither on the vine.


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The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.