The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (Niace) has suggested a National Advancement Service be established. Here, deputy chief executive Stephen Evans sets out how it could tackle low pay.

The deficit will be a central feature of the general election debate – Labour will claim the government hasn’t cut the deficit as fast as they said they would; the other parties will claim Labour would spend too much. The deficit, however, is a symptom of economic problems. Low pay is one of the causes.

Five million people in Britain are low paid – that’s 1m more than the international average. Their living standards have fallen in the last decade and will take until 2020 to recover. And too many people get stuck in low pay – three in four people low paid ten years ago are still low paid today.

This failure of pay to rise is part of the reason for the stubbornly high deficit – when earnings don’t rise, neither do income tax receipts. And behind the blizzard of statistics lies the human cost: of people struggling to make ends meet, a rise in food banks, young people not able to get on the housing ladder.

For too many people it feels like prices rising faster than wages is simply the new normal.

The role of learning and skills in tackling this fundamental challenge is too often underplayed. Many of those in low paid work have relatively low qualification levels and get relatively little training at work: those with already high skills are four times as likely to get training as those with low skills.

We know too that, in order to progress, people need additional support on top of training – whether that’s mentoring, confidence building or signposting to new opportunities. The very best learning and skills provision builds this in already.

Yet whatever the result of the general election, funding for people in work is likely to be cut still further. Unless you are young, have few previous qualifications, or are out of work, there is likely to be little support available to you. The main offer is likely to be taking out a loan. Yet we know that since the introduction of these loans in Further Education, there have been dramatic falls in the number of adults learning.

It is perhaps only a slight exaggeration to suggest we are heading to a cliff edge in adult learning.

Niace believes that a new National Advancement Service could help to square this circle.

It would offer a free career check to everyone in low paid work, the chance to sit down with a qualified career coach to talk about your goals and how best to achieve them.

You would agree an action plan with your career coach – which could include on-the-job training, further qualifications, work shadowing, networking etc – which would be part funded by a personal career account. Data on how successful the service was at helping people advance their career and boost their earnings would be publicly available.

The new service would be funded by refocusing part of the current National Careers Service budget and adult skills budgets. Local areas would be encouraged to top this up using European Social Fund and other funding.

It is simply not realistic to call for additional funding in the current climate, so this is about better integrating together existing funding, tailoring it to individuals, and focusing on the outcomes desired rather than what it takes to get there.

The idea is to free up providers to build tailored packages of support and study programmes for individuals, based on the outcome of higher earnings for that person.