Adult education should be a golden thread running through all government strategies – the budget is Philip Hammond’s opportunity to embed it, says Stephen Evans

The Learning and Work Institute is pleased to support FE Week’s #SaveOurAdultEducation campaign. Adult education is more important than ever, and we need to turbocharge participation in learning, starting with this week’s budget.

For those of us in the sector, the expansion of apprenticeships, including the three million target and the forthcoming levy, has provided a focal point.

The skills plan has generated a real debate about reform of technical education, and skills were at the heart of the industrial strategy green paper.

This really does feel like a once-in-a-generation chance to make learning and skills a central part of building our post-Brexit national prosperity and providing engines of social mobility.

However, behind these headlines are a raft of statistics showing how overall participation in learning has fallen.

There are 1.2 million fewer people taking part in learning than in 2010. This includes a 280,000 fall in adults learning literacy and numeracy, and a 120,000 fall in community learning participants. That’s pretty dismal given the UK’s poor record on the basics, and the power of community learning to engage people and communities.

All of this matters due to the power of adult education. It helps you get a job and build a career. It boosts health and wellbeing

The Adult Education Budget might be frozen in cash terms, but higher-than-expected inflation means a seven per cent real-terms cut by 2020 planned at the time of the spending review has now become nine per cent.

Finally, the budget for advanced learner loans, vital for intermediate skills, was due to be £498 million per year by now. It’s actually £260 million and the latest figures suggest a small fall in the number of adults aged over 24 taking part. And of course FE Week is spot on that learners whose providers go bust should have their loans written off.

All of this matters due to the power of adult education. It helps you get a job and build a career. It boosts health and wellbeing. It supports economic growth and productivity. And it promotes communities and citizenship.

The impact of adult education can be most clearly seen in the stories of adult learners. People like Emily Hicks, who was selected for a Festival of Learning award in 2016, after balancing caring for her family from an early age with learning. After working her way through school and university, she is now helping others who find themselves in a similar position working with carers’ organisations in York and nationally. She is a truly inspiring person.

There are millions of people like Emily, their lives transformed by learning and adult education. But future Emilys risk missing out if we don’t reverse the fall in adult learning. We need to create more opportunities, more routes in, if we are to make sure everyone has a fair chance in life.

This week’s Budget provides a great opportunity to start. Better-than-expected growth means borrowing is likely to be (while still high by historic standards) £12 billion lower than planned. We would like to see some of that invested in:

Increasing funding per student in FE, which is currently stuck at 1990 levels. This would allow more contact hours per week.

Investing an extra £200 million per year in adult literacy and numeracy, as part of a community engagement strategy.

Earmarking money for training for small firms and the self-employed, outside apprenticeships and the levy, just as in Scotland.

Improving the links between community learning and health, wellbeing, employment, and community engagement.

Developing new personal learning accounts so individuals, employers and the government can invest together.

Beyond greater investment, I hope the government will also recognise that adult education, including but going beyond apprenticeships, should become a golden thread running through its strategies for health, regeneration, growth, and more besides. That’s why FE Week’s call for an adult education strategy matters – it should be a cross-government approach.

Our future prosperity and fairness depends on unleashing the capacity and capability of our amazing adult education sector. Together we must campaign for change.

 

 

Stephen Evans is CEO of the Learning and Work Institute