Political parties are finally waking up to a crisis in the skills sector, writes Stephen Evans. Whichever way this election goes, there’s no putting that genie back in the bottle.

You wait years for a political party to say they’ll invest in lifelong learning and then, like the proverbial buses, two come along at once.

Labour has announced a £3.2 billion per year extra investment in a National Education Service in England, building on a report from their Lifelong Learning Commission (of which I was a member). This follows the Liberal Democrats proposing an annual £1.9 billion for new ‘skills wallets’, money in a virtual account that can be spent on accredited learning. (The announcement suggests this will be restricted to higher education, but I hope they’ll clarify soon that it is for learning at all levels.)

It’s great to see this commitment to invest in learning for adults. After a decade of cuts, our analysis shows we’re slipping further behind other countries, particularly for basic skills, level two and level three. The proportion of adults saying they are participating in learning is at its lowest in the 22-year history of Learning and Work Institute’s annual survey.

This is a crisis, and the many economic and social benefits of learning shows the cuts to England’s adult education budget to have been a false economy.

The Labour announcement focuses on entitlements to level three and above, but its commission talks about the importance of free access to learning at all levels. This must form part of Labour’s plans and I hope they will confirm this soon. Firstly, because it would be odd to have an entitlement for free level three learning and not for level two, given both have economic and social value. But secondly because many adults lack the vital foundations for future learning; nine million adults have low literacy or numeracy. Labour have described these proposals as being like an escalator of learning: you can’t get on an escalator of learning halfway up so this must be true a lifelong learning entitlement for learning at all levels.

You can’t get on an escalator of learning halfway up

Beyond headline entitlements and investment figures, there’s three things I think are important in the Labour commission.

The first is the idea that lifelong learning should be built into lots of different policy areas. We’ve shown the benefits of learning for health, wellbeing, social inclusion and so much more. I’m pleased the commission argues for other government departments to consider the role lifelong learning can play in their policies. Learning isn’t just something for the Department for Education.

The second is the focus on a collaborative system of delivery. We’ve got too many funding streams that are often short-term and with rigid eligibility criteria, meaning providers spend too much time having to ‘hide the wiring’. We need a joined up approach that allows providers to work together, with longer-term funding – allowing us to focus on the needs of people rather than trying to stitch together a patchwork quilt of short-term funding streams.

The third is a focus on supporting adults to learn. The cost of a course is only part of the overall cost. So the idea floated by Labour of paid time off to train for some employees and thinking about appropriate maintenance support are good ones. Likewise, the call for high quality careers advice that links with other services people access, such as trades union reps, can help make sure people are able to make informed choices about learning.

Of course there are big questions to answer, including who should be eligible for maintenance and how paid time off for training can work for employers. But the principle, of ensuring everyone has the support they need to learn, is important to translate entitlements to learning into a practical reality for people.

I’m pleased to see the political debate shift from how much to cut to how to invest. Election campaigns rarely have all the detailed answers, but there’s some good building blocks here and the main thing is the recognition that we need to invest in lifelong learning.