Adult education is about more than employability skills; it impacts the economy in all sorts of ways, says Ruth Spellman

While Adult Learners’ Week celebrates the achievements of students whose lives have been changed by adult education, providers need to reflect on whether the FE sector is achieving its goals. These are tough economic times. As providers, we have to focus on the impact we are having and the benefits of adult education to UK plc. The government recently highlighted in its policy paper, Rigour and Responsiveness in Skills, that we are in a global skills race and an effective FE sector is vital to making the UK competitive.

However, the policy focus should not be entirely on employability skills. The effects that adult education can have on community cohesion, social mobility and families are enormous and often go unrecognised.

A few weeks ago I met one of our learners, Lisa Harrington. She went through a few difficult years after she left school at 15 without any qualifications. But with our local partners, BEST, we gave her the opportunities that helped to turn her life around.

It was not just that Lisa was able to look for work for the first time. It was the impact on her children that struck me the most. She has become a role model for her family, breaking a cycle of education failure and creating a positive learning environment at home.

Family learning courses include cooking, learning through play, and supporting children with English and maths. The adults who achieve maths and English levels one and two are then in a much better position to help their children with homework and to understand any learning difficulties. Teaching reading skills, helping in sentence construction and composition and general written communication is proving a real boon to young people – all the more because their learning is reinforced by positive role models at home and time committed by their parents towards their education.

For adults, getting involved boosts self-confidence, encourages involvement in other volunteer activities, enables the acquisition of qualifications and enhances their own health and wellbeing. Headteachers have themselves reported children attending school more regularly along with improvements in behaviour and higher levels of achievement in academic studies.

At the Workers’ Educational Association we have created four course themes – employability, health and wellbeing, community engagement and cultural education – to see what effect we are having on the lives of learners.

Our research shows that all types of education have a positive impact.

Employability courses helped those in work progress their careers while giving those out of work the confidence to find a job. Our health and wellbeing courses reported a 98 per cent improvement in social and health impacts, with ‘life satisfaction’ ratings higher than the national average.

Community engagement courses gave people the chance to make new friends and many progressed on to volunteer work. In cultural education, 84 per cent said they improved at least one skill, such as communication or literacy skills, and 94 per cent of disadvantaged students said they were likely to undertake future learning or training as a result of the course.

We can’t achieve these results on our own. That is why we are focused on developing our already extensive links with universities, colleges, trade unions and employers. This will provide new opportunities for learners and raise educational aspirations so that the UK can have a truly world-class FE system. We are also engaging through new social media channels and mobilising support for adult learning to generate more public support for our work.

Policymakers need to take a holistic view of how adult education impacts the economy. As providers, we need to give them the evidence to show adult learning works. Together we can justify government investment in FE and community learning while continuing to meet the skills challenges of a competitive global economy.

Ruth Spellman, chief executive of the Workers’ Educational Association