Colleges could take over running of Norfolk County Council’s adult education

Dressmaking course at Thorpe Adult Education Centre. PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY

Dressmaking course at Thorpe Adult Education Centre. PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: © ARCHANT NORFOLK PHOTOGRAPHI

The running of the outstanding county council adult education service in Norfolk could be handed over to further education colleges in an attempt to cut costs and secure its future.

The local authority is in negotiations with City College Norwich, Great Yarmouth College, the College of West Anglia in King's Lynn and Easton College in Norwich which would see delivery of courses transferred to them.

The discussions follow a £700,000 – or about 10pc – reduction in funding from the Skills Funding Agency.

It has prompted adult education leaders at the council to look at ways to adapt the service, which was last year rated outstanding by Ofsted.

With the colleges already delivering their own courses for mature students, it is hoped they would be able to organise county council classes at a lower cost.

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But worries have been raised that the change could lead to a lesser service for the 16,000 learners who use the service each year.

The authority stressed talks were still at a very early stage and that both the Skills Funding Agency and Education Funding Agency were also involved.

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Barry Stone, cabinet member for cultural services, said: 'Making adult learning as accessible and relevant as possible, to as many people as possible, will help us protect funding for Norfolk.

'No decisions have been taken and the overall intention of this is to protect and improve frontline provision across Norfolk, and maintain adult learning at a time when resources are tight.

'Any proposals will need to satisfy both funding agencies and, once we have firmed options up, a paper will be brought to a future cabinet meeting.'

But the EDP understands that talks between the authority and colleges have been slow moving as they attempt to overcome a number of concerns about the impact the change could have on the service.

The colleges are said to be keen to ensure the adult education offering is not reduced as a result of the handover.

Unison, the union which represents many adult education workers, said it was 'not convinced there is a need for a change'.

Jonathan Dunning, Norfolk branch secretary, said a number of voluntary redundancies had already helped the service cope with the £700,000 funding cut and he feared handing over delivery to the FE colleges could reduce the accessibility of courses for learners.

He said: 'Currently, adult education services being provided by the county council means adult learning can be delivered from a variety of locations across the county. My fear is there may be some parts of the county that wouldn't get the same provision they currently get.'

Mr Stone said the redundancies had helped secure the future of adult education in Norfolk but the funding cuts had demonstrated a need to find new ways to run and improve the service.

He said the authority did not want to see the number of locations where courses were available reduced. He admitted the colleges would be likely to use their own sites to deliver classes but added: 'Nothing is finalised and we are still negotiating. There are no plans that the colleges will take over everything. Some of the courses, for example, they might not be able to take on and we would look to keep them in their present venue or look elsewhere. They could become a social enterprise activity.'

The council said it was too soon to comment on what would happen to its own adult education venue Wensum Lodge in Norwich.

Mr Stone said: 'In considering the best way ahead, the county council needs to look carefully at the future of all our assets in the context of their current suitability and potential future market value. We cannot discuss any particular venues because we are still assessing options. In the meantime, it's very much business as usual.'

Unison's Mr Dunning said the council's refusal to comment on Wensum Lodge's future 'raises our suspicions still further' that the site could be lost.

In a joint statement, the principals of the colleges said they collectively provided courses for more than 10,000 of their own adult learners in a wide variety of venues.

'Building on this experience and expertise, we are committed to working with Norfolk County Council and partners to help develop a workable solution that can ensure high-quality learning opportunities continue to be available to adult learners throughout Norfolk,' they said.

The talks do not involve changes to the colleges' own adult education offering.

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