More to do to engage adults with Advanced Learner Loans

23 October 2017

Although the recently published statistical first release on Further Education and Skills in England demonstrates concerning falls in apprenticeship starts and adult participation in Further Education including English and maths and Level 2 courses, there is more positive news on Advanced Learner Loans.

There were 95,000 learners with an Advanced Learning Loan in 2015/16 – an increase of 26.1 per cent on 2014/15. This is great to see, L&W research has demonstrated that the policy can and does work for individuals, and as our recent Festival of Learning award winners have shown; investment in skills and qualifications can change people’s lives.

We should not be satisfied however; the numbers are still well below the volumes seen when such provision was co-funded. Furthermore, while it is recognised that technical skills at intermediate level improves productivity, less than 10% of the adult population aged 20-45 possess professional education or training qualifications.
More can be done to engage greater numbers of adults with Advanced Learner Loans, whilst reducing the significant skills gaps that remain in sectors such as retail and health & social care.

Despite some providers successfully offering a curriculum which can be supported with Advanced Learner Loans, overall the sector has been slow to respond and embrace loans. Unsurprisingly, both providers and employers have been more focused on apprenticeships over the last 18 months, influenced by the introduction of the Levy; but there will be many individuals for whom an apprenticeship is not the right offer.

Our Ambition London research has found a range of barriers preventing greater uptake. These include time costs, limited or insufficient information, negative perceptions about loans and debt, a lack of focus on the individual as a consumer and an opinion that either training is not needed or would not be useful for career progression. Employers appear interested in supporting their employees in conjunction with the use of Advanced Learner Loans, but complain the curriculum offer falls short of what would really make a difference. Our experience of working with colleges and training organisations has shown that many continue to struggle with the idea of an individual being a paying consumer of the system, which requires a different offer. There is also the question of whether the ESFA has allocated facilities to the right provider mix who can offer the delivery of high quality and valued provision, supporting progression and critically making an investment in skills and training worthwhile.

These barriers illustrate the importance of delivery models that will meet the needs of individual learners. At present, Advanced Learner Loans are only available for those studying full qualifications; this can be costly and often requires commitment of up to two years. Employers in the health & social care sector have found that at Levels 3 and above, short courses specialising in vocational skills and knowledge can often help the employee to take on more responsibility and achieve pay progression. So why is the government expecting individuals to invest more time commitment, at a greater financial cost, when what is often needed is short sharp interventions with funding support, albeit in a loan format?

There is also a need for good-quality information about progression routes, and about loans, so that individuals are clear on the potential return on investment and the repayment structure; enabling them to make informed decisions about their career. The Skills for Health and Skills for Care toolkits (developed as part of Ambition London) provide good examples of how such information can be presented.

This needs to be complimented by support mechanisms running alongside skills provision, such as peer support, support from senior managers and systematic use of HR processes. It is essential Advanced Learner Loans are positioned to meet the needs of learners and employers, and that provision is of a good quality.