Further education colleges must be enabled to continue to provide high quality education and skills training for adults, says Alastair da Costa

Poverty is surprisingly entrenched in the UK, with most of the 10 million people in Britain in low-income or no income households, stuck there. In 2017 the Commission found that just one in six low-paid workers (17 per cent) had managed to permanently escape from low pay in the previous decade.

Without the money or access to resources that wealthier people take for granted, those in low-income or workless households face an uphill struggle to break out of the cycle of poverty. Often with few qualifications, millions of people are trapped in precarious and badly-paid work – as shelf-stackers, waitresses, bar staff, play workers and the like. Many are on zero-hours contracts.

People are losing hope. The Commission’s 2018 Social Mobility Barometer survey found that 47 per cent of 18-65 year olds feel that where you end up in society is mainly determined by your background and who your parents are.

When almost half of the working age population simply do not believe in social mobility, what can be done to improve people’s outlook and their life chances?

Education, education, education

One way is through education – not just for our children, but adults too. Good quality, relevant, affordable adult education and skills training of the kind offered by colleges up and down the country, offers low-paid workers a route into a better job and lifts the unemployed into the world of work. It’s an area that the Social Mobility Commission explores in detail in our report: The adult skills gap: is falling investment in UK adults stalling social mobility? which we launched this week.

Our findings are troubling. Among other things we found:

  • Those from lower socio-economic backgrounds rely on government-funded training, but since 2010, the proportion funded by government has decreased – in 2013/14, it was just 7 per cent of the £44 billion invested in adult skills.
  • Individuals are having to fund more of their own training – often through learner loans.
  • The poorest adults with the lowest qualifications are the least likely to access training – despite being the group who would benefit most.
  • When spending on training and skills, employers prioritise high-qualified workers in senior positions.
  • Lifelong learning – whether it’s to refresh forgotten skills or upskilling to keep up with changes in technology – help improve people’s life chances.

FE’s vital role

The further education sector is central to any efforts to boost adult education, but it has been massively affected by lower government spending in the last decade. The Commission firmly believes that further education colleges must be enabled to continue to provide high quality education and skills training for adults.

In my role as Chair of Capital City College Group, I can see the clear benefits of enabling and encouraging adult training whenever I visit any of the Group’s three colleges. For example, the College of Haringey, Enfield and North East London has pioneered free courses for all adults studying at Entry Level, Level 1 and Level 2. CONEL was the first London college to do this and, not surprisingly, courses are hugely popular with more adults are choosing to study there than ever before. We would also like to develop the idea of a life-long learning credit scheme for our staff, students and alumni whereby courses throughout our Group can be accessed throughout a person’s different life stages. This sort of adult learning credit scheme could clearly have wider application and benefits and I am a keen advocate of the idea.

At the Commission, we’re calling for a number of things, including:

  • Government to spend more on adult skills and prioritise lower-paid people, including more funding for free courses for those who cannot pay themselves;
  • Increased quality of training in terms of earning gains, and improved careers information, advice and guidance;
  • Increased employer spend on lower-skilled, low-paid workers;
  • More investment in research to find out what works.

If the labour market is to work for everyone, those with lower skills and qualifications need to be able to improve their career prospects and realise their ambitions. This is the challenge that confronts us all and which the Commission exists to overcome.