Almost a year ago George Osborne used his budget speech to commit the Government to a review that, at the time, many of us hoped would catalyse a comprehensive national conversation about the role of adult learning in modern Britain.
The signs were good, with the budget report containing this eminently sensible promise: “As working lives lengthen and jobs change, adults will need more opportunities to retrain and up-skill […] To promote retraining and prepare people for the future labour market, the government will review the gaps in support for lifetime learning, including for flexible and part-time study.“
Since then, however, with little debate on the issue in the House of Commons, and no public consultation, it appeared to be taking place behind closed doors.
Light was finally shone on the illusive review of lifetime learning last Friday, in an adjournment debate on ‘Night Schools and Adult Education’ called by Labour’s David Lammy, who proclaimed “the Government’s [post-16 skills] plan promised to outline a plan for lifetime learning by the end of 2016, but it did not appear”.
Halfon could choose to be radical
In his response, the skills and apprenticeships minister, who could easily have skipped over the question without consequence, provided a little insight. Robert Halfon admitted it was very much alive, and said the government would “soon bring forward potential policy options from the current review”. He also listed its priorities as “meeting our skills deficit, helping the socially disadvantaged and the community, being as widespread as possible, given the funding pressures, and being good quality.”
For me, the minister’s response ticks a lot of boxes so I’m looking forward to seeing what gaps and policy options have been identified. Furthermore, I see the publication of further policy options for lifetime learning to be particularly timely, now that the prime minister has announced ‘hard’ Brexit, which should force the government to examine the ‘competitiveness’ and skills need of the domestic population.
For me, the government’s lifetime learning options should recognise four interlinked realities. Firstly, the skills deficits the minister talked about, and people’s lifetime learning needs in modern Britain, can’t be solved by apprenticeships alone. I don’t expect, or want, a sudden abandonment of the three million target at all, but instead hope that the government places value on other types of adult learning.
Far too many people don’t see learning as being for them – even though these are often those who have most to gain
Secondly, far too many people don’t see learning as being for them – even though these are often those who have most to gain. the Learning and Work Institute’s ‘Adult Participation in Learning’ surveys consistently show that participation in learning is determined by, among other things, education levels. In other words, you’re more likely to see adults in learning who already have qualifications than those without. This is a big challenge and will need much more policy integration between employment support programmes and the sector.
Thirdly, ‘lifetime’ must mean something. The minister could choose to be radical here and publish options that move the way we organise and fund education away from a system in which you might have ‘spent’ all of your entitlements by the age of 19. Devolved budget holders could be empowered to do things differently and improved learning accounts could resurface, with links to savings incentives or pensions.
Finally (for now at least), the government has promised a consultation about how to make basic digital skills training free to all adults who need it, which is welcome. But there also needs to be a strategy to tackle the UK’s poor performance on other basic essential skills. It is frankly embarrassing that one in five adults struggles with poor numeracy and one in six struggles with poor literacy in one of the richest countries in the world.
We must recognise that for a lot of people we want in learning, including older people, just walking into a college and enrolling on a course is not as straightforward as you might think, and that community learning is often the vital first step to gain the self-confidence and belief that learning has huge benefits for them.
I hope I am right and that it is finally time for a serious conversation about lifetime learning.
Shane Chowen is head of policy and public affairs at the Learning and Work institute