MPs to launch inquiry into benefits of lifelong learning and local authority support

A new inquiry into the current state of adult education and lifelong learning is being launched by the House of Commons education select committee.

Former apprenticeships and skills minister Robert Halfon (pictured), who chairs the committee, will make the announcement during a speech at an event hosted by the Centre for Social Justice in London tomorrow.

A spokesperson for the committee said the inquiry is “going to be looking at the benefits of life-long learning to the economy and individuals, and also how improving adult skills can promote social justice”.

Poor access to lifelong learning is one of the great social injustices of our time

It will also be “examining the level of support available to learners from local authorities”.

Halfon will say in his speech that while it might not get the same attention as other “big-ticket items in Westminster”, poor access to lifelong learning is “one of the great social injustices of our time”.

Warning of an “enormous wave of lost opportunity about to come crashing down on the next generation of employees”, he will say it is a scandal that lifelong learning is out of reach for the millions already most disadvantaged in society.

“Lifelong learning is a more affluent person’s game,” he will tell the Centre for Social Justice.

“Those who might benefit most from adult learning and training – low-skilled people in low-income work or the unemployed – are by far the least likely to be doing it.”

Another potential problem, according to Halfon, “is the numbers of people undertaking community learning have dropped – from around 650,000 in 2011/12 to around 500,000 in 2017/18”.

He’ll say that while “just over half of those in higher socioeconomic groups engaged in learning in the last three years, just 26 per cent of people in lower groups did.

“Adult learning should be a lifeline for the shocking number of those who left school ill-equipped to grapple with the rough and tumble of the jobs market … around nine million working adults in England have low literacy and/or numeracy skills. Yet in the last ten years just 17 per cent of low paid workers have moved permanently out of low pay.”

Before announcing the select committee’s inquiry into the current state of adult learning, Halfon will say the UK lags behind other wealthy nations in spending on lifelong education, and a recent study by the Social Mobility Commission shows England’s adult skills budget “fell by 34 per cent in real terms between 2010-2016”.

Halfon will call for an adult community learning centre to be put in every town in the country, and a top-slice of the existing £60 million support fund – which is meant to specifically target those living in deprived areas – for apprenticeships and use this to support more organisations like the WEA, the UK’s largest voluntary sector provider of adult education.

Halfon will also propose increasing tax incentives both through Corporation Tax and by ensuring increased benefits for employers investing in training people with lower skill levels.

“Only by recognising this crisis and taking urgent actions to reverse it can the UK avoid today’s divisions multiplying because those with most to gain from lifelong learning continue to be the ones with the least access to it,” Halfon will say.

Grassroots community based learning is a lifeline for many in our most deprived communities

A spokesperson for the WEA said the inquiry into lifelong learning announcement is “very welcome”.

“Grassroots community based learning is a lifeline for many in our most deprived communities,” they added.

“As working lives get longer and we all need to keep pace with change to live full and active lives, lifelong learning becomes more and more vital.”

The select committee is inviting written submissions addressing the following questions: 

  • What are the benefits of adult skills and lifelong learning (ASALL) for productivity and upskilling the workforce?
  • What are the benefits of ASALL for social justice, health and well-being?
  • What role can local authorities/combined authority areas play in ASALL provision?
  • To what extent is the range, balance and quality of formal and informal ASALL education adequate?
  • Who currently participates in and benefits from lifelong learning? 
  • What lessons can the UK learn from abroad?

The deadline for written evidence submissions is 15 August.

The select committee isn’t the only body to have launched an inquiry into lifelong learning in recent times.

A team of 16 education experts joined Labour’s lifelong learning commission in February, and before that, in March last year, the Lib Dems launched a similar commission.