Media focus on younger learners during Covid overlooks adult education

26 Sep 2020, 5:00

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As the government rolls out the national retraining scheme, a publicity drive is needed to promote adult learning, writes Ann Marie Spry

The UK education system emphasises younger people, with the majority of funding directed towards pre-18 compulsory education, and the immediate post-18 education the next most supported.

We can see this reflected in the media’s coverage of the coronavirus crisis in education, with countless articles on the GCSE and A-levels debacle, university places and young disadvantaged learners.

Although these are all important issues, it’s not right that there is negligible media coverage of how the crisis has impacted opportunities for adult learners.

We know that adults who left school at 16 or younger are half as likely to take part in learning as those who stayed on in full-time education until at least 21.

Adult learning is as much an issue of social mobility and disadvantage as it is for any other age group. To add to this, in recent years the education sector has not been able to prioritise adult learning.

While Downing Street has often said that further education and skills are a priority, lack of investment has left millions in the UK without basic skills and unable to access education and training. Five years ago, the Association of Colleges warned that continued cuts to the adult skills budget could risk eliminating adult education and training in England by 2020.

Today, we are feeling the effects of the 47 per cent cut in government spending on adult education, excluding apprenticeships. The number of adult learners continues to fall and adult learning has plummeted by nearly four million since 2010.

Meanwhile, in the first two quarters of 2018-19, participation in government-funded adult further education fell by 3.5 per cent. I think we can all agree that adult education needs to be revitalised. And it will need a great deal of political support.

The introduction of the national retraining scheme, first launched in 2019 and rolled out this year, will be pivotal in helping adults across the country get on the path to a new, more rewarding career. This scheme will be needed more than ever, given the rise in unemployment in the past few months as a result of Covid. However a national campaign to promote adult learning needs to be launched at the same time.

During the lockdown, there was a reduction at Leeds City College in the number of new adults wanting to start learning during the summer term. We are offering more online courses to try to mitigate this.

However, in reality, only a few courses are currently available wholly online and tend to focus on skills needed in “white-collar jobs”.

In reality, only a few courses are available wholly online

While the crisis has helped boost remote learning, training for crafts-related occupations or a work-based component remains difficult to deliver online.

At the same time, the current basic skills training tend to be more focused on the qualifications people gain, and less on the outcomes such as whether they secure work, further training or increase their earnings. The government needs to look again at how the success of adult learning programmes is measured.

At Leeds City College, we’ve also noticed that more learners are opting for longer, more comprehensive and expensive courses. Yet not everyone has the financial capacity to study full-cost courses and the government needs to create a strategy that accounts for this.

Incentives are needed to allow adults with a level 2 or 3 qualification to retrain in certain priority sectors, perhaps through a subsidised offer.

Finally, a national approach is required to ensure that adult learning is not left on the sidelines. There is not enough publicity or coverage on the benefits to adults of lifelong learning.

Strategic messaging around the value of adult learning in terms of job prospects, retraining, upskilling and mental health is vital. The government must have adult and lifelong learning at the forefront of its mind – now more than ever.

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