With the Euro elections just two days away, Mark Ravenhall examines England’s skills policy relationship with Europe.


Quite often at Niace we are asked to explain “UK skills policy” to overseas visitors.

After a lengthy pause, we tend say the world of adult education is not like the Eurovision Song Contest.

Whereas the UK has one entry for Eurovision, each of the four home nations dances to a slightly different tune in terms of skills policy.

There are not just differences around, for example, the English enthusiasm for loans as a way of financing higher education and advanced level learning for the over 23s.

It concerns different funding systems, methods, approaches to staff development, and involving communities across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The devolved administrations look on with interest at the developments in England and wonder whether the experiments sometimes referred to as “English Exceptionalism” will work in their context.

But in many ways the UK context is very similar. There are cuts to colleges and local authorities wherever you go, youth unemployment blights many careers before they have begun, and basic skills is a challenge in communities the length and breadth of the UK.

What’s more, some of the solutions are not devolved, such as the work of Job Centres and the Work Programme.

A twin-track approach to training for unemployed adults exists right across the UK.

As so much funding comes through European institutions, we at Niace have joined together with 120 other organisations in 43 countries to write to our prospective Euro MPs

Despite these similarities and differences there is not much sharing of practice across the UK and an analysis of what works.

That is why Niace was keen to accept the role of UK national co-ordinator for the European agenda for adult learning. This is an EU policy that involves all members’ states and several other countries in Europe. It is part of the Erasmus Plus programme that is estimated to bring around £40m into UK adult learning over the next year or so.

Niace receives a modest amount of money to coordinate communication with other national coordinators, run demonstration projects, undertake research and run conferences across the UK.

Last year, we were in Cardiff and last week we were in Edinburgh. Apart from showcasing UK-wide projects we invited people from more than 20 countries to Edinburgh to share their approaches with practitioners and learners from across the UK.

Members of the Scottish Parliament have hosted us at the Castle and Holyrood. We have discussed how the worldwide financial crisis has affected adult learning opportunities in Europe and farther afield.

We have heard from the European Commission and UNESCO. Some of us have been humbled by the amount achieved by adult educators in the poorest countries.

There has been a common theme to these discussions across the UK and Europe. One of these is that at times of austerity learning professionals need greater freedom in choosing how to deploy resources.

Explaining even our simplified funding and qualifications system in England takes some time and usually ends with the question: “Why would you make it so complex?”

Another is the challenge presented by ageing populations right across Europe. How can adult learning be developed to support older people as well as younger adults?

As so much funding comes through European institutions, we at Niace have joined together with 120 other organisations in 43 countries to write to our prospective Euro MPs. You might want to ask similar questions to your candidates.

Our questions are: what does lifelong learning mean to you?How will you support the promotion of adult education and lifelong learning if you are elected? How can different disadvantaged groups be included in lifelong learning in order to support social inclusion?What do you see as the role for non-formal adult education in helping to implement EU educational policy?How will you support the work of voluntary organisations in promoting adult education, and would you support a “European Flagship campaign on adult education and learning” — and how?

In a sense it is not the questions that matter. Just the fact we are asking them.

Mark Ravenhall, senior research fellow, National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (Niace)