A looming Brexit makes it easy to see why adult education is at the centre of election policy battleground, writes Sarah Waite, but a comprehensive vision for this vital sector is yet to be articulated

I can’t remember when adult education last featured so prominently in the election pledges of two major parties. While discourse in education policy has increasingly moved towards “the-earlier-the-better”, adult education has long been forgotten as a key route to social mobility.

This doesn’t impact adults only. Don’t forget: about a third of the attainment gap for a child aged 3 is linked to their parents’ level of education and the environment for learning created in the home. Failure to reach adults – parents – through education perpetuates a cycle of disadvantage that keeps pressure on early intervention.

This week, the Liberal Democrats announced plans for “skills wallets”, a £10,000 grant for every adult in England to draw on to pay for higher education courses throughout their working life.

Labour then laid out its stall, announcing that it would extend the free entitlement to study A levels while offering up to six years of free adult education for higher-level courses. It also promised to give workers the right to paid time off for education and training.

It’s refreshing and encouraging to see two major parties not only with policies on adult education, but framing them as a key plank of their education plans. Any of these policies would help some learners. Access to level 3 qualifications is key to progressing into higher-level qualifications, which will then address key skills shortages. A lack of paid time off is also a substantial barrier to working adults being able to enrol in education or training.

However, both parties have sadly missed the opportunity to tackle the biggest challenge.

Our education system almost completely divides at 16 between those who achieve five “good” GCSEs and those who do not. Of those who do, 88 per cent go on to achieve A-levels or other level 3 qualifications by the age of 25. More than half have degrees by this age.

As good as these new policies are, they simply won’t reach those that need them most

For the young people who miss out on five “good” GCSEs, only three in ten achieve A levels or other level 3 qualifications by the age of 25. Just 6 per cent have a degree. For young people who do not already hold level 3 qualifications, it is already free for them to study these until the age of 23. Despite this, more than two-thirds never do.

Why not? Because a substantial proportion – one in three – don’t get beyond level 1 qualifications (education below GCSE level). For these young people, the cost of level 3 courses isn’t the real barrier. Lacking the GCSE gateway qualification to meet entry requirements or the literacy and numeracy skills required to keep up with many of the courses pose far more of a barrier.

This matters because people in this group are disproportionately disadvantaged. Every year, half the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds achieve the GCSE benchmark compared with those from wealthier backgrounds. These young people then enrol in further and adult education on lower-level courses. As good as these new policies are, they simply won’t reach this group. Instead, the majority who will benefit, yet again, are those going into higher education and studying higher-level qualifications.

With the looming impact of Brexit on skills, I am not surprised that adult education features more prominently in politics. But according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the sector has been cut by 45 per cent in real terms since 2010, hampering its efforts to provide the support that young people and adults with low-level skills need to progress. What the sector needs is a wide-reaching vision that tackles the root of the problem. And it deserves the same quality policy development and scrutiny that schools receive. Good intentions sit at the heart of these announcements, but without serious plans to tackle this issue, the political parties will not achieve what they hope.