To increase social mobility, government needs to look beyond grammar schools and universities and invest properly in adult education, says Sue Pember

In his autumn statement, the chancellor specifically identified the UK’s poor productivity as a matter of national concern.

Part of this productivity gap is down to poor skills, especially adult skills. Adults working today will still make up more than two thirds of the workforce in 2030, but the autumn statement was nevertheless a skills-free zone.

The 2017 budget must be an education and skills budget. The government’s industrial strategy must have a strong human component as well as physical capital.

Adult education has a role to play in raising productivity, strengthening community cohesion, increasing social mobility, reducing unemployment and inactivity, enhancing progression into well-paid jobs, extending working lives, tackling health and mental health issues, and attracting inward investment. It is not just one thing, it has many aspects and should be there all through our lives.

The chancellor has hinted that there might be a skills element in the budget – that’s good news – but my concern is that the government’s idea of skills only means level four and above.

We will never achieve extensive social mobility through a narrowly defined route

We have to face up to the fact that the nation continues to have a legacy of poor basic skills; 40 per cent of our young people still don’t achieve level two at 16. One in five adult employees does not have the basic English and maths skills required in the workplace, which means labour productivity is low. Although we know how to support the basic skills learner, it is no longer seen as the priority it should be and little is done by employers. We need to address this now and put the energy back into the programme.

The EU referendum has raised tensions over the place of migrants in our society and local communities, whether they have come to the UK to work or study, have relatives in the UK, or are seeking asylum. It is vital that all people throughout the UK, whatever their status post-Brexit, are given the chance to learn English; not just for themselves and their futures, but for their children’s and grandchildren’s welfare, and to achieve stronger community cohesion.

Although the government invests in this area, there is no clear policy, with different government departments regularly starting and stopping initiatives.

Research demonstrates that adult education can strengthen community cohesion. However, to be effective it needs central and local government to work together to provide an integrated structure for adult basic skills and family learning, including language training and ESOL.

The government says it is committed to increasing social mobility. All too often, however, the challenge is framed in terms of helping children from poorer backgrounds to access high-quality academic education by attending selective secondary schools, high-performing school sixth forms and into full-time higher education. We will never achieve extensive social mobility through such a narrowly defined route.

Social mobility should be improved by developing alternative pathways. Access to higher- and degree-level apprenticeships is one pathway, but so too is higher-level technical education at 18 and over.

And yet, if we are to encourage more 18-year-olds to study higher-level technical education courses (which are so vital to boosting our productivity performance) on a full-time basis, they need access to maintenance support like traditional full-time HE students.

We also need to ensure the provider base is robust and weed out all those who wish to defraud students or undermine the reputation of good providers.

We need a strategy that brings politicians from all parties together and a commitment for at least 10 years. There is shared ground and this should be an area where we can come together to meet the challenges.

It is not that we don’t have any framework; we still have the Coalition’s 2011 document ‘New Challenges and New Chances’, which set the direction, and we have the rules in the funding guidance. What we don’t have is a strategy that sets the ambition post-Brexit, brings departments together, and establishes an overarching agenda for the devolution of the adult education budget.

 

Sue Pember is director of policy and external relations at HOLEX