Labour’s new commission is a chance to establish truly integrated lifelong learning, says Joyce Black

The first three months of 2019 have shown us that C can mean celebration, centenary and, of course, commission. Lifelong learning is the thread that brings them all together.

Three important adult education organisations are celebrating this year: the Open University and Aontas, the national adult learning organisation in Ireland, have both reached their 50th birthday, while the iconic London adult education centre, City Lit, is marking its centenary. These organisations are all very different and were set up with different purposes, but they have all transformed the lives of adult learners who might have otherwise missed out.

Another centenary being commemorated this year is the Ministry of Reconstruction’s 1919 report on adult learning, which described adult education as “a permanent national necessity” that should be “both universal and lifelong”. One hundred years on and we’re still having to make the case, even though there is so much more research and evidence, including from the Learning and Work Institute (L&W), which clearly demonstrates the impact adult learning has on the individual, communities, economies and society.

For the past 26 years, L&W’s Festival of Learning – the biggest celebration of lifelong learning in England – has highlighted the many and varied opportunities learning can bring to individuals, their families, communities and employers. It has been my privilege and pleasure to read the nominations for the past 17 years, to read first-hand the transformative examples of lifelong learning and retraining.

And so on to the C for commission. It seems that a new commission is either announced, launched or has published a report every week, but I have a particular interest in Labour’s new Commission on Lifelong Learning. Its task will be to develop proposals that will create a system of lifelong learning that is genuinely integrated across all types and providers of education; proposals that give individuals access to the education and training they need throughout their lives, not just to serve the economic need, but to improve their own life chances.

While this can sound like so much familiar rhetoric, one question that is also included is, “can and should lifelong learning support other government policy priorities – health being one such example?”

This for me is the key question and if the answer is “yes”, then not only for health. If a future Labour government is serious about this, then those cross-departmental discussions need to take place now. Government departments need to be embrace the demonstrable value of adult learning and education in addressing more of their strategic priorities and policies in health and social care, social integration and community cohesion, social mobility – and not forgetting industry, in the context of the fourth Industrial Revolution.

While we know that there is much international evidence of the impact of adult learning across other public policy agendas, three recent L&W reports (Healthy Wealth and Wise; Learning Work and Health; Time for Action) bring together the evidence and the arguments as to why and how lifelong learning should support other government policy priorities.

Some of the suggestions I will be making to the commission include: taking a more co-ordinated and integrated and longer-term focused approach to health and associated services, including adult learning and employment programmes; supporting learning linked to health, work and communities (social prescribing) much more strategically across the UK; linking social prescribing with entitlements to a personal learning account to help give individuals greater choice and ownership over their learning, as well as more flexible help with the cost. I could go on.

I have joined with other colleagues on the commission, bringing more than 40 years’ experience in FE, and am looking forward to developing a genuinely integrated lifelong learning system that meets the ever-changing needs of individuals and our country. This is the time not to just be bold and radical, but to also be creative and credible.