Instead of a thought-out comprehensive strategy for further and adult education and skills, the government has merely delivered more short-term tinkering, says Jill Westerman
We expected a budget for Brexit. The statement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer fell some way short.
The budget was an opportunity for Mr Hammond and the government to demonstrate that they have a bold, positive vision for the Britain that will emerge from Brexit. It was a chance to show that they have a handle on the huge challenges posed by an ageing workforce, a dwindling supply of European workers and a UK in which social divisions are becoming ever more present and damaging.
Addressing these problems calls for more than a few bright wheezes and a modest shuffling of resources. It demands a profound change of course. There were a few good ideas but the Chancellor conspicuously failed to deliver meaningful, coherent change on the scale our society, economy and education system needs.
The news for the further education sector was not especially bad. There were no further cuts to funding and some extra cash to support colleges in preparing for T-levels. There was also an additional £600 for schools and colleges for every extra student who studies A-level maths and continued funding for unionlearn.
The emphasis on digital skills was also welcome (though online learning, while important, can only ever be part of the story). But where was the expansive, forward-looking vision for the future of the sector? Where was the recognition that increased reliance on homegrown talent requires a step-change in investment in education for adults as well as young people? And where was the extra funding needed to reinvigorate a sector which has been battered by cut after cut over the past decade?
The words ‘deckchairs’ and ‘Titanic’ spring to mind
Instead of a thought-out comprehensive strategy for further and adult education and skills, underpinned by an evidence-based understanding of changing needs and a changing sector, we had yet more short-term tinkering, often to ameliorate the damage done in previous rounds of education cuts, and little joining up of new measures.
The words ‘deckchairs’ and ‘Titanic’ spring to mind. Unless politicians get better at understanding the sector, and its critical role in improving lives, developing communities, growing skills and boosting productivity, and begin to think expansively about its future and what it can contribute, we are likely to find ourselves revisiting the mistakes of the past in the policy-making equivalent of Groundhog Day.
The government’s failure to do this – and, with the present difficulties our society and communities are facing, they had every reason to change tack and think bigger and differently about the future – is not only a blow for further education, it is calamitous for social mobility and social inclusion.
The loss of educational opportunities for young people and adults, at all levels of study, is a blight on lives and communities, particularly for the least advantaged. What was there in the Budget to give hope to those at the bottom of the heap? Where was the support for adults with poor basic skills – all nine million of them – or for the millions unemployed or in insecure work? Where was the recognition of the benefits that adult education can bring to the health and well-being of both young and old, and the consequent savings to the health budget?
This chronic underinvestment in adult education has an obvious impact on our capacity to meet the future needs of the labour market.
With too few 18-year-olds entering the labour market to take up future jobs and the supply of labour from the EU soon to be cut off, we desperately need more opportunities for adults to train and retrain, to adapt to new technologies and to navigate the challenges of later pensions and longer lives. Where is the provision to meet these urgent needs? Where is the evidence that the government even takes these pressing concerns seriously?
Warm words about skills and further education are not enough. We need a long-term, well-funded strategy, which engages providers, students and future students, local government, local enterprise partnerships, employers and civil society, so the sector can finally play its full role in creating the foundation for the future prosperity of all our people. It’s time we stopped thinking of the future as somebody else’s business.
Jill Westerman is a trustee of the Further Education Trust for Leadership and principal of the Northern College