How adult education cuts add up

PUBLISHED: 07:55 16 June 2006 | UPDATED: 11:01 22 October 2010

Norfolk's Adult Education Service is about to slash £1m a year from its budget with learners facing higher fees and fewer courses and dozens of staff set to lose their jobs. Public affairs correspondent SHAUN LOWTHORPE spoke to Beverley Evans, the head of the service about the changes ahead.

Norfolk's Adult Education Service is about to slash £1m a year from its budget with learners facing higher fees and fewer courses and dozens of staff set to lose their jobs. Public affairs correspondent SHAUN LOWTHORPE spoke to Beverley Evans, the head of the service about the changes ahead.

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Beverley Evans is happy and willing to talk. Her service is facing probably its biggest upheaval in decades as it seeks to cope with an 8pc cut in funding and dig itself out of a financial mess of its own making when senior staff failed to keep a close eye on spending.

But she admits that losing £1m off an £8m annual budget is going to prove a tall order. Dozens of admin staff could lose their jobs, there will be fewer courses and those courses are set to become more expensive.

For her, July 18 marks a big day - it's when the new call centre booking system goes live.

That's just one of the money-saving changes being planned as the number of admin centres is cut from nine to four.

The union is not happy and there are question marks about spending £350,000 of council taxpayers' money to get advice from consultants Cannizaro about how to restructure the department.

“I don't think that the service could have continued to run as it was,” she says. “What we are doing effectively is live within reduced funding, and we are trying to reduce our overheads.

“We are running as many courses as we can and as broad as we can. The priorities are for more funding for 16 to 19s, more funding of skills for life, if it's adult learners it should be vocational learning.

“There will be a reduction. It saddens me and I'm sure it saddens most people who are working in adult education that there isn't more government funding available.

“We don't get any funding through the council tax it's all from the Learning and Skills Council (LSC). That as much as anything is a reason for making these efficiency savings.

“It's a huge change, a really significant change. For staff affected, it's a huge change.

I still feel a lot of people will be shell-shocked. The service hasn't had much change for a long time.

“I think the service got itself into a mess with its finances because it hadn't kept pace with the reductions in LSC funding in previous years.

“The reductions we are seeing now are sharper than just no inflation, they are no inflation plus. I don't think there is an option.

“If we didn't make the sort of radical structural changes we are making now then the service wouldn't be able to operate.”

But what does it all mean for the 30,000 people who sign on to a course each year?

“From the learners' perspective the main change will be our enrolment procedures,” she explains. “You will be able to speak to somebody on the phone for basic guidance who can refer you to a member of staff if you have a more detailed query.

“I'm hoping that people will find that a good thing. For us it's a much more efficient way of spending the money we have got.”

Libraries are also going to play a larger role.

“We are going to use the libraries for anyone who doesn't want to use the telephone system. They can pick up a form and fill it in. The library service is increasingly being encouraged to see itself as a learning service and not just for people who love reading books. I think there is a huge potential there.”

But some courses will have to be cut to balance the books. There are currently 3,500 courses run by the department but that is likely to be cut by around 8pc - or around 200 classes to help balance the books.

That means more emphasis on studies in management, accountancy and training for those hoping to work in early years education or as teaching assistants.

“If we are running two French classes in the same place, one on a Tuesday and one Thursday we might only see one running now. That may unfortunately mean that some people cannot access that course.”

Course lengths could also be cut to 10 weeks.

“The courses we won't be able to run as much of are those that people do for their own interest, if they have an interest in history, architecture or psychology which are not specifically for a qualification.

“That's hugely valuable learning and I'm sorry we are not going to be able to run as many. That's the thing that will suffer as we move our programme to focus on more vocational skills.”

Courses like yoga, keep fit, arts and crafts, sculpture and flower arranging, could also be affected.

“We have had thousands of people or more on these types of courses and we know they are very valuable. We are looking to keep as many courses as possible, but I would be lying if I said there won't be any reduction in courses.”

Fees policy is also being addressed.

“What we are hoping to do is make sure that nobody who can't afford to pay has to pay the full amount,” she says. “Where people will notice the change is unless they can prove they are on a low income they won't get a reduction. All pensioners over 60 have got a 20pc reduction - they won't be able to do that in the future.”

And then there is the future of Wensum Lodge, which is set to become the department's new headquarters in Norwich.

“Wensum Lodge itself is a grade one listed building. Developers don't approach us for that - the building itself is secure.”

But she conceded that the rest of the site including the sports hall or the car park may be redeveloped in future.

“Personally I don't know what the future of that will be. If the county council thinks its better value for council taxpayers they might do that. But there is certainly no plans for that now.”

Critics wonder if she really needed to spend £350,000 on consultants to reach some of these conclusions?

But she sees the move as an investment to guarantee the service.

“They have spoken to most of the staff and asked them to describe what they do at work,” she says. “They've analysed that for us and told us where people are repeating processes. They have tried to help us understand where people are duplicating work.

“The proposals are not Cannizaro's proposals, they are the proposals of my senior management team based on that analysis that we have had from Cannizaro.

“I stand behind them, the senior management team does too, because they are what we think is the right way to run the service in the future.

“Although £350,000 is an awful lot of money, the new structure will save £1m a year. By comparison I don't think that a one-off payment of £350,000 against £1m a year is such a huge amount to be investing.

“It's hard for the people in my management team to both run the service and transform the service at the same time.

“We need fresh ideas about what's possible. I've been here for two years, a lot of my colleagues have been here a lot longer than that. It's quite difficult to imagine what the possibilities are for the service when you have been in it for that long.

“If we are still here in a few years' time and balancing the books, I think the £350,000 would have been an investment worth making.”

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