Justine Greening may be gone, but her social mobility plan lives on. Ruth Spellman wants to see much more adult education.

In December last year, Justine Greening released her plan to improve social mobility through education.

With her exit from Cabinet this week, the sector is right to be concerned that further disruption will distract government from the job at hand. Her plan deserves to live on, and we hope her replacement Damian Hinds, who has a positive track record on social mobility, shares her vision that “everyone deserves… a chance to go as far as their hard work and talent can take them” – not to mention her belief that education is a vital part of securing this future.

Justine Greening

This belief has underpinned the work we’ve done at the WEA for over 100 years, but at the moment the reality doesn’t match up.

There is a large and growing gap in education, employability and housing, between those people with good prospects and those who are being left behind.

Better education at all life stages is vital in closing this gap, but investment in adult education and skills makes up considerably less than 10% of the DfE’s budget – meaning a fraction is available for people who need repeated opportunities to improve their education and skills.

Despite acknowledging that the government has “not done enough to invest in FE” Ms Greening’s plan failed to highlight the contribution that adult learning makes towards tackling the social mobility challenge.

The WEA’s latest report, ‘How adult learning transforms lives and communities’, demonstrates the role that lifelong learning can play in helping the people and communities we need to reach.


Damian Hinds

We have over 50,000 students, nearly half of whom have no or only low-level qualifications. Over a third live in disadvantaged postcodes and 48 per cent are on income-related benefits. Our students face challenges that are a direct result of social inequality, and adult education has offered them a way to overcome some of these.

We see the benefits in the employability of our students, who also go on to become active members of their communities, developing new skills and growing in confidence, which in turn is passed on to their children and beyond.

We need to address the fact that five million adults lack basic reading, writing and numeracy skills required for everyday life. This impacts not only employability but confidence, health and wellbeing. We need a cross-departmental strategic approach to improving performance, unlocking opportunities for millions of adults who are currently held back.

We know that school performance tends to set adults on a path limited by their performance at 16, and it is difficult to make up the ground. It also tends to turn people away from education for life. Adult education can change the course of these people’s lives and greater provision in local, community-based venues can encourage them back into the classroom.

We need investment in appropriate education pathways for students of all ages

We need to see real choice at post-16 and post-19. Adult education works best when it meets specific needs. Although adults can apply to be apprentices or study for technical qualifications, many will need to first build their confidence through non-accredited courses or access courses.

We need investment in appropriate education pathways for students of all ages, otherwise apprenticeships and T-levels will benefit only those who have consistent support to get them to the appropriate level.

The WEA wants an adult education strategy that covers access to learning, infrastructure issues and rights for adult students to enjoy parity of esteem with the traditional student. We are not just talking about vocationally specific and higher-level skills but delivering opportunities for people to access current entitlements to English, maths and digital skills.

We should commit to removing the barriers that stand in the way, making good the current deficiencies which exist in every community. The “working poor” need to be able to earn and learn, and older people who have left the workforce should be able to derive the health and social benefits which come from continuing access to education.

For tens of thousands of people across the UK, community and adult learning provides a life raft to a better future. We must not write off the adults in our society as lost causes, and instead give them equal opportunity to learn, develop and to contribute as active citizens.

Ruth Spellman is general secretary of the Workers’ Educational Association

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