Five elephant traps to avoid in crafting a lifelong skills strategy

Mapping out this dangerous political territory for the new government to help them deliver a vital policy for national renewal

Mapping out this dangerous political territory for the new government to help them deliver a vital policy for national renewal

6 Jul 2024, 5:00

Since the election was called, I have emphasised to politicians that adult education and skills development is for all, not just level 3 and above.

The stats are alarming: government has cut investment by £1 billion since 2010; employers are investing 26 per cent less in training per employee than 2005; 17 per cent of adults lack a level 2 qualification; and 9 million have poor essential skills.

Traditional education failed these adults, and the previous government ignored them.

Adult community education (ACE) faces huge challenges. It needs to inspire adults to overcome their fear and anxiety of learning. But despite a 40 per cent austerity budget cut, ACE centres, colleges and institutions still educate over 400,000 learners annually in more than 10,000 venues, with 97 per cent rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’. They could do more with government support.

The adults they teach and train often have disrupted educational backgrounds and are just starting to gain qualifications and skills. They lack a voice, so we urge the new government to prioritise education and skills programmes for them.

This renewed focus will soon pay for itself through enhanced productivity, increased economic benefits and improved wellbeing.

However, it’s crucial that a new government avoids the mistakes of its predecessors and develops a robust, lifelong learning strategy that is government-wide, led by a senior minister with cross-government responsibilities, inclusive of all ages and levels, delivered in all settings and underpinned by statute.

It will be easy for new ministers to accept a simple repackaging, but the sector needs more. In that vein, here are five elephant traps to avoid:

A single departmental Lifelong Learning Strategy

Creating a successful lifelong learning strategy is akin to navigating a minefield, with pitfalls created by previous administrations. Treating skills development in isolation is like cooking with only salt – bland and ineffective.

Integrate lifelong learning with broader economic and wellbeing plans for a cohesive approach. A lifelong learning strategy should be the responsibility of all government departments and underpin industrial, employment, health and migration strategies.

Ignoring the student voice

We all know the adage that you can take a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Remember it is only the student who does the learning. If they are not on side, the programme will fail. So listen to their voice.

A new government could start with helping with living costs, for example, enabling students on courses below level three to draw down a grant, access maintenance loans, or carry-on claiming universal credit.

Not acknowledging local context and needs

What works in a bustling city won’t necessarily work in rural areas. Too many new programmes were designed in Whitehall. If we are keeping Local Skills Improvement Plans, expand them to cover all adults, not just those at level 3 and above.

Implementation needs to be local and at council ward level, so empower local authorities through statute to lead, because they know their communities best.

Insufficient engagement with those who deliver

Developing policies in an echo chamber is like planning a surprise party for someone without asking what they like – awkward! So don’t forget adult community education. We are out there and know what adults want and need.

Consult not just with businesses, but educators and communities to keep the new strategy grounded in reality and avoid embarrassing surprises.

Centralised control can stifle creativity. Allow educators to design flexible, adaptive programmes that respond to economic changes and technological advancements.

Creating an unfair funding system

Current post-16 budget allocations favour those who did well in school, and the system creates inefficiencies. Lifelong learning should be prioritised to ensure continuous personal and professional growth for all, so fund adult education properly to allow everyone the opportunity to succeed.

The adult skills budget has been reduced by 49 per cent since 2010. Cutting that funding without considering the consequences has led to 7 million fewer qualifications being achieved. The unintended consequences: poor productivity and increased reliance on foreign workers. Adequate funding is crucial to maintain a skilled workforce.

By avoiding these elephant traps, a new government can develop a veritable spend-to-save lifelong learning strategy – and that’s a policy win-win.

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One comment

  1. Full Marx

    “Remember it is only the student who does the learning”.

    That is an astonishing thing to read in an article about lifelong learning. I hope I’ve misinterpreted it. An educational dictatorship where learning is done to you, not with you…