DfE quietly shelves plans for £100m online adult learning platform

Ministers have quietly shelved plans for a £100m online learning platform intended to form the centrepiece of Rishi Sunak’s push to improve adult numeracy.

The prime minister has made improving the nation’s maths skills a personal mission. While chancellor in 2021, he announced £560m of funding for Multiply, a numeracy scheme for adults.

At the heart of the UK-wide project was an online service that would allow learners to access tutoring directly. When Multiply was first announced, the Department for Education said: “A new digital platform, to be launched next year [2022], will give you access to numeracy training on demand, at your own pace, to build your confidence and boost your skills.”

But the DfE now concedes that plans for this digital platform, which it previously described as a “critical pillar” of Multiply, are on hold.

Stephen Morgan, the shadow schools minister, said: “This shows the prime minister’s focus on maths is nothing but empty rhetoric. The plan is an unworkable distraction from the government’s existing failure to recruit and retain maths teachers across the country.”

With £430m of Multiply’s £559m budget earmarked for distribution to local authorities to commission face-to-face numeracy courses, the digital platform was expected to cost about £100m.

It is unclear what will happen to that money, which came from the UK shared prosperity fund established by the government to replace EU structural funding after Brexit.

The DfE published a prior information notice in April last year, signalling its intention to tender for companies to build the digital platform, which would “act as the national ‘front door’ to Multiply”.

It said the contract would include “several components: a digital learning platform, platform content, and an online tuition offer”, with bidding for the contract expected to be launched in July 2022.

But that procurement never took place, and the DfE admits the process has been paused while the government reviews how the wider scheme is working.

Stephen Evans, the chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute, said it was important that the budget earmarked for the digital platform continued to be spent on improving adult numeracy.

“Nine million adults in England have low literacy or numeracy, holding back their life chances, so Multiply is welcome,” he said. “People need ways to access learning to fit around work and home life, so online learning has a key role to play. But if the government has decided not to proceed with a digital platform, it needs to reinvest that money in frontline delivery quickly.”

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Any underspend on the wider Multiply scheme is expected to be clawed back by the Treasury.

Funding for delivering courses on the ground is devolved to local councils and mayoral authorities across the UK, which were invited to submit their plans for the scheme to the DfE by July last year.

With provision expected to go live from last September, educational insiders are privately warning that the process has been rushed. “All it’s become in year one is a race to get the money out of the door,” said one training provider. So far, 13,500 learners have been enrolled on Multiply courses, according to the DfE.

The DfE said: “The government remains committed to giving people the essential skills they need to build successful careers. That is why the prime minister and secretary of state have reaffirmed their commitment to maths education and have assembled an expert advisory group to identify the maths knowledge and skills needed to thrive in the modern economy.”

Sunak has made clear his aspiration that all 16- to 18-year-olds in the UK continue to study maths in some form, and he used a recent speech to attack what he called an “anti-maths mindset”.

“My campaign to transform our national approach to maths is not some ‘nice to have’. It’s about changing how we value maths in this country,” he said.

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