England needs an all-stages and all-levels levelling-up lifelong adult learning plan, writes Sue Pember
Both Wales and Scotland are pursuing plans for an enhanced adult learning offer. These plans put centre stage adult learners’ goals and hopes for the future, a system that builds on the strengths, experiences and skills that they already have to improve their life chances.
The draft Adult Learning Strategy for Scotland: 2021-26 was published last week and looks at “expanding and extending” adult learning as well as “connecting the adult learning journey”.
Meanwhile, in England, in the post-19 sector, we have a continuous stream of new initiatives often at odds with schemes or proposals previously announced but not yet implemented.
This ad hoc approach is not providing a large cohort of adult learners with what they need. It is leading to many poorly attended new initiatives with poor value for money, deadweight activity, frustrated learning institutions and prospective learners who can’t find a way into the system.
That’s despite the fact that the rapid development of artificial intelligence, net zero policies, the volatile job market,, and recovery from the pandemic, coupled with the rise in cost of living, makes adult learning key to many government responses.
Lifelong learning should be the overarching framework for all stages and levels of education. It is much more than access to a post-19 lifetime loan. Whether you are starting out in a new job, making a career move, or thinking about retirement, education and learning new skills will make a difference to your life.
This ad hoc approach is leading to poorly attended initiatives
This concept of lifelong learning needs to be nurtured and promoted. New and existing skills programmes should address the gaps they are trying to fill and be developed with the sector with the needs of learners in mind.
Adult learners have many barriers to learning and these barriers need to be understood and mitigated.
It is of little use to say to someone who has a couple of GCSEs or a level 2 qualification that the government has made available a free level 3, but that it doesn’t provide funding to cover cost of living, childcare or costs of caring for relatives, or the cost of transport to the venue, or new IT kit.
There are also barriers around confidence and concern if they didn’t do well at school. How can they be sure they can succeed now? They need help here, with better adult guidance, support and mentorship built into programmes.
Although the levelling-up white paper goes some way towards focusing resources on one set of issues, it does not go far enough.
Going forward, we would ask government to support the development, in consultation with the sector, of an all-age, all-stages and all-levels levelling-up lifelong adult learning plan. It should highlight how learning new skills supports the economy, improves productivity, facilitates integration and improves personal and financial wellbeing.
This strategy should become the framework for devolution of skills and education budgets and support the post Covid-19 recovery, and should recognise the central role of the adult community education sector in this agenda.
We need to build on what works, and not invent another nationally designed scheme that competes with the existing offer.
Building on the work the Department for Education has done on level 3 and the loan entitlement for HE, the plan should spell out new government-wide strategies for level 2. It should include the vocational shortage areas for skills training in healthcare, service industries, transport and basic skills including ESOL, health and wellbeing, and digital.
The plan should also include a mechanism for preparatory work on new subjects that are not yet featuring in job vacancies, such as developing green agencies.
There should be a national promotion of the adult learning offer. Government should run a national campaign that explains what is free and supported and how to access courses.
It should establish a branded adult education centre in every town, which supports adults into learning and throughout their education journey.