The DfE mustn’t assume that ‘if we build it, they will come’, writes Emily Jones
The government recently consulted on the National Skills Fund – a £2.5 billion investment to help people to “train, retrain and upskill throughout their lives in response to changing skills needs and employment patterns”.
The consultation provided a great opportunity to answer some of the questions related to successful implementation of the policy.
Questions such as: how can employers be encouraged to use free level 3 courses to upskill their staff?
What challenges do providers face in delivering skills bootcamps?
And what flexibilities do adults require in order to access provision?
While the consultation asked many important questions, it missed some key challenges to engaging adults who may not otherwise take up learning or training.
All the evidence on adult participation in learning shows that those who have benefited least from learning in the past are also least likely to take up learning in the future.
Despite decades of policy changes in adult education, people in lower social grades, those with fewer years of initial education, and adults furthest from the labour market remain under-represented in learning.
Current policy doesn’t go far enough in addressing the entrenched inequalities in participation in learning. For the National Skills Fund to be effective, it must go further.
Current policy doesn’t go far enough in addressing the entrenched inequalities in participation in learning
As the Department for Education looks carefully at the responses to the questions they posed in the consultation, it will therefore be important that they take a step back and also consider the wider picture.
Here are three questions that need to be answered to ensure the policy engages the adults who too often miss out but who have the most to gain:
Firstly, how do we make adults aware of the opportunities available through the National Skills Fund?
There are significant barriers to participation in learning, including limited experience and understanding of adult learning – of its availability, what it entails and its value.
If the government wants a wider group of adults to consider learning, we need a bold communications strategy that raises the profile of the National Skills Fund and helps create a culture in which learning is an ordinary part of life.
Secondly, what support and guidance is needed to help adults choose the right opportunities?
The National Skills Fund will include a range of offers, including the lifetime skills guarantee and skills bootcamps.
Our evaluation of the DfE’s cost and outreach pilots highlighted the importance of good communication to ensure potential learners are aware of the opportunities that are on offer, how they can be accessed and the benefits of doing so.
Nearly one-fifth of learners who took part in the evaluation said that they had not received enough information about their course before starting, and these learners were less likely to have had their expectations met.
The National Skills Fund must go hand-in-hand with high-quality careers advice to help learners make the most of what’s on offer and maximise the impact of investment.
Thirdly, how do we support adults to overcome attitudinal barriers to learning?
The National Skills Fund consultation focuses on the practical barriers that adults may experience when accessing learning – mainly cost and time – and how learning provision can flex to meet individual needs.
But we also need to address the wider barriers many adults face, often from previous negative experiences, which influence their perceptions and expectations of learning as an adult.
This could involve a lack of confidence, feeling too old to learn, or not seeing the personal relevance or benefit of learning.
Our annual survey shows that adults who are least likely to learn are most likely to identify these types of barriers.
In fact, research on decision-making indicates that the practical barriers only become relevant once someone is already thinking about taking up learning.
The government assumes that ‘if you build it, they will come’
If the National Skills Fund is going to successfully engage adults who have the most to benefit from the policy, we need to address these dispositional barriers and show that learning can benefit everyone.
Of course, the government is right to consult on the practical implementation of policy, but focusing on only this assumes that “if you build it, they will come”.
In other words, if we get the funding and provision right, adults will automatically show up. The research evidence paints a much more complex picture.
While it’s critical that we have a strong and diverse set of opportunities for adults to learn, we also need to step back and ask harder questions about how we provide an offer that will engage and support adults to succeed.