The top-line priority of the government’s skills policy is progression into work. And with the appointment of Gillian Keegan MP as secretary of state, we can expect this to be further underlined. As a minister, Keegan took forward the Skills for Jobs white paper. Its likely employment outcomes will continue to be her priority.
This is understandable; As the cost-of-living crisis bites, steady employment becomes more important than ever. But a vocational qualification is not the answer for everyone.
The cost-of-living crisis will hurt us all, but its impact on those who are already most disadvantaged will be harder still, and it will be felt in various ways. Adult community learning is a lifeline for many people in disadvantaged communities. While it’s not a panacea, its promotion of, and support for, community learning is crucial in strained economic times. As a means of supporting individuals and communities to take back control over what matters to them, it is hugely empowering.
We know that cost is already a common barrier to learning, and additional pressures associated with the cost-of-living crisis including childcare and transport will put courses beyond the reach of many more. In addition, working extra hours to ensure you can feed the family – and the meter – will leave no spare time for learning.
But a focus on qualifications for employment alone could worsen matters. Direct progression into work is simply not a realistic prospect for all. Progression into a job or a Level 3 might take time and require incremental steps.
Adult learning that supports direct progression into work will not help those outside the workforce through illness or disability, or because they are full-time parent or carers, or because they have retired (including those below pensionable age). The crisis has severe impacts on all of these groups. Yet they might be excluded from learning opportunities that could improve their wellbeing, life skills, and support them to make a positive contribution to their communities. But help with practical day-to-day activities, such as personal budgeting and healthy cooking and eating, can contribute to coping better in difficult times.
As other forms of social connection and personal fulfilment are constrained by severe lack of disposable income, adult learning provides a means of keeping active, making friends and overcoming social isolation. This aspect is also crucial in terms of improved mental health and wellbeing, which bring their own economic benefits.
The WEA’s recently published Impact of Adult Learning report shows short courses can have a transformative effect. Our strategy is to deliver a mixed curriculum of learning for life, learning for work and learning that builds communities. And we want to see cross-party efforts to support that, by creating a national policy framework, which promotes community learning for those who need it most.
Building on Keegan’s Skills for Jobs and David Blunkett’s Learning and skills for economic recovery, social cohesion and a more equal Britain report published last week, we urge both main parties to adopt a more rounded national strategy that captures the wider outcomes of adult learning – employment certainly, but also health and connection with community.
While there is financial support available for learners on low incomes, this is not well promoted or known. The Department for Education should fund a national campaign to promote adult education courses of all types, especially aimed at those individuals and groups hardest hit by the Covid and cost-of-living crises.
Jeremy Hunt, the new chancellor, has indicated an extremely tough spending round lies ahead. But reducing spending on adult learning and skills would be a false economy. No budget is safe, but Keegan must convince the treasury that the return on investment in adult education – in terms of productivity and associated costs from improvements in wellbeing – outweigh any supposed efficiency savings.
In the hard times ahead, the right support for adult education can help communities, not just to survive, but to lay the groundwork for rebuilding.