The government is taking positive steps on skills development, but adult learners must be attended to, says Ruth Spellman

In recent weeks, our government has set out its vision for a country that’s “fit for the future”. The chancellor’s budget, the industrial strategy and now the Skills Summit have all shone a spotlight on the need to upskill and retrain home-grown talent to close the productivity gap.

Last week, Justine Greening used her speech at the summit to develop this agenda further and the WEA welcomes many of the ambitions she set out.

For instance, she was right to say that alongside investment in manufacturing and technology, we must invest in our country’s biggest asset, our people. She was right because it is an investment that underpins not only our economic strategy but that reaps dividends across every part of society.

She was also right to address the needs of both young people and adults in regards to education. Yes, we must prepare our workforce for jobs that don’t yet exist, through high-tech training and investment in STEM, but we must also offer support for services and education providers that help adults take their first steps back into employment.

We need to invest in our adult learners, just as we do with our under 19s, to connect them up to new opportunities

The WEA welcomes a National Retraining Scheme, with career learning pilots and initiatives on digital and construction skills, but there is currently no clear vision for a future in which access to learning for all ages is recognised as a driver of productivity and creativity.

This government’s “future” also needs to include support for millions of adults who would benefit from accessible learning to help them with their basic skills, enabling them to get back to work, or retrain across all sectors of the economy.

We face today, as the education secretary rightly explained in her speech, a problem of lost potential. What we must remember is that potential is not only found in young people. We need to invest in our adult learners, just as we do with our under 19s, to connect them up to new opportunities.

Our own recently launched impact report showed the positive impact of offering people the chance to return to learning. 57 per cent were better equipped to find work, and 82 per cent reported improvements in mental health and wellbeing. Our report showed that people who undertake adult education courses do not rely so much on the benefits system, find employment more easily and become active citizens.

Many of the opportunities are going to come from business, which is why we are pleased to see links forged between education providers and employers.

Business must absolutely be present in schools and colleges

As well as helping learners develop new skills and confidence, it is important for people to get a sense of the needs and the culture of employers.

Business must absolutely be present in schools and colleges, inspiring students and setting out clear pathways to employment, but they should also be involved in working with adult learners, for example through mentoring programmes and through volunteering. If firms were more closely involved in lifelong learning they could ensure that the skills and talents of adult learners were evolving to keep pace with a changing workplace.

That’s also why we should see greater emphasis on careers guidance for adults as well as young people. Skills development and training alone will not necessarily help people back into employment, and we should not assume that adults don’t also need support in navigating the world of work.

We know through many years of work that people respond best to flexible, accessible learning opportunities close to home. This means offering education courses that often don’t look like education at all, but that offer people a local and welcoming environment in which they can start to develop the skills that they require to find their own pathways in life.

This government’s vision to invest in our people is positive, but we must ensure that really means all people and give adults the chance to contribute to our economy and society and to be great role models for their children.

Ruth Spellman is general secretary of the Workers’ Educational Association

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