All over the country, ACL tutors didn’t just provide new online courses – they kept an eye on the vulnerable during the Covid lockdown, writes Anna Mimms

Adult and Community Learning (ACL) changes lives. The Covid-19 crisis has seen ACL at its most responsive. We created online offers so fast that we surprised ourselves. In Derby we produced an online response to lockdown reducing isolation, improving mental health and wellbeing, whilst increasing support for people affected by job insecurity.

Within five weeks of lockdown, Derby Adult Learning Services had provided new online learning opportunity to about 750 learners.

I’m showing off. We weren’t the only ones.

Around the country tutors phoned their vulnerable learners, made sure that food boxes were delivered, checked up on unpaid carers. Courses were created for people who are sheltering. We might not be as fancy as Colleges of FE, but my goodness we make sure that we add social return on the ESFA funding investment, which is seldom either understood or properly quantified.

David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, has published A Skills-Led Recovery Plan, a document that describes the Covid-19 crisis as the biggest shock to the economy, to our society and to labour markets that any of us will have seen before. The plan acknowledges that young people and adults with lower qualifications always suffer worst in a recession.

My experience of the 08-09 economic crisis was that entry-level jobs went to people with degrees. It’s happening again in 2020, a constant influx of the newly redundant, followed by the inevitable tsunami of unemployed as furlough schemes end, flood the labour market.

Of course, ACL will provide courses and workshops helping people gain employability skills, but in addition to mass unemployment, we are hurtling towards a national depression. People are scared and isolated – our collective mental health is taking a real hit.

School doesn’t work for everyone – we are a second, third, fourth chance. Many of our learners have complex and challenging backgrounds, and ACL provides a lifeline. We are a melting pot of humanity.

ACL is invaluable to the socioeconomic wellbeing and social mobility of communities nationally.

Improved literacy and numeracy skills, especially in the current climate, can be instrumental in reducing social isolation, improved access to universal services and increased ability to compete in the labour market.

Here is just one example: “When we started the Zoom meetings, I was worried that I won’t make it. You helped me feel more confident. I broke the shame barrier and I started speaking English”, an ESOL student told us.

These feelings of “shame”, in our learners are real. They affect mental health, isolate and destroy families and employment opportunities.

One of the biggest challenges facing the sector is digital poverty.

With services, courses and support going online, those without access to Wi-Fi and technology are at risk of increased isolation and disadvantage.

Ian Bond, head of Nottinghamshire County Council’s ACL Service and the East Midlands LEAFEA lead, highlights the key role that digital skills will play in boosting economic recovery during the Covid crisis: “Across the D2N2 LEP region, the local industrial strategy clearly recognises that a lack of digital skills contributes to a productivity shortfall that is 14 per cent lower than nationally and is around 32 per cent lower for the Information and communication sector.

People are scared and isolated – our collective mental health is taking a real hit

“Adult and community learning services offer a unique combination of non-accredited and accredited programmes, and they have recently reinvented themselves to provide their programmes digitally due to Covid-19. ACL providers are ideally configured to play a vital role in promoting the resilience of individuals. Regional and national policymakers need to wake up to the unique support that ACL services can provide to help our communities tackle rising unemployment, address the disproportionate negative economic impact on the low-skilled and help our economies to thrive.”

Adult and Community Learning has a key role to play in the national response to the socio-economic and mental health challenges that we face. Now is the time to listen to our voice and notice our collective social impact.