Last week’s news about lifelong learning being placed on the government’s agenda was welcomed by many of us in the Hotcourses office. After all, we strive to help this demographic back into education.
But as perfect as it may sound having politicians work out a way to ensure that adults aren’t being left behind when it comes to developing skills and being actively competitive candidates within the workforce, we couldn’t help but wonder how a potential national strategy would fit into the bigger picture of our education sector.
Schools themselves aren’t uniform in their delivery of facilities and services and further education colleges have faced cuts in recent years. So how will the government possibly deliver a strategy for lifelong learning or at least improve conditions for people under this umbrella without sacrificing quality and with funding being a big question.
I reached out to Ruth Spellman, Chief Executive for the Workers' Educational Association, who wrote for FE Week about what was needed for this national strategy as I was keen to hear her thoughts on how exactly the government could overcome obstacles and make this a complete success.
‘I envision the strategy including better links with the rest of education policy. With responsibility for adult education now back with the Department for Education, we have a fantastic opportunity to create a cradle-to-grave strategy for learning. Given that demographic change – namely an ageing population – is one of the most powerful forces shaping today’s society, this is more important than ever,’ she explained.
‘As we are living and working longer than previous generations, employees will need opportunities to reskill and upskill throughout their working lives. The educational needs of the younger generation have always been at the forefront but we know that upskilling older workers is key to boosting the nation’s productivity. According to a recent government report, by 2022 the number of people in the workforce aged 50 to state pension age will have risen to around 13 million whereas the number aged 16-49 will have reduced by 700,000.
‘In practical terms, I would like to see the introduction of a new learning account which would enable government, employers and others to support learners financially when they need it most. These accounts could be set up by Government to address particular skill shortage issues, e.g. STEM, and they could be topped up by employers and by individuals. A variety of proposals have already been developed by the WEA and the Open University amongst others, but it is important that we create new vehicles for long term investment. It could be a way of creating purchasing power and a demand led system,’ Spellman continued.
Funding has always been a big issue within the sector with continuous cuts made to adult learning, which begs the question, will funding be an issue when it comes to potentially implementing this strategy? Spellman acknowledged the cuts and explained that funding would be pivotal.
‘Without long-term funding for lifelong learning, adult education providers cannot innovate in the same way as schools and universities. Many are also left at risk of contingency planning due to changing funding formulas and less investment.
‘More stability in funding, better recognition of the return on investment that adult learning delivers and an evidence-based approach to funding and policy is vital.’
Another way of looking at lifelong learning is to envision it as a ‘must have’ rather than a ‘nice to have’ element according to Shane Chowen, the Head of Policy and Public Affairs at the Learning and Work Institute.
‘For a while it had been compartmentalised and characterised unfairly as the reserve of the middle classes learning for leisure and therefore unworthy of public funding. That image and attitude did a lot of damage - to the tune of one million fewer adult learners in further education. We now have high profile Conservatives, including former PM David Cameron, recognising, to varying degrees, the need to revive lifelong learning and recognising it as a vital part of people’s economic and social prosperity as technology changes the way we work, labour market demands change and the population ages. The recent Industrial Strategy green paper gives us a positive direction of travel in recognising learning can’t stop at school,’ he said.
Chowen rightly says that the qualifications we gain in school are no longer enough within a modern society and a modern economy. So how, in his opinion, would a national strategy work?
‘Firstly, it should recognise that apprenticeships are not the only solution to people’s lifetime education needs and that less formal and community-based learning is incredibly valuable as a first step for people who have been out of learning for a long time. Secondly, policy integration, particularly with the employment support sector, to reach people on low incomes who are least likely to be in learning. Thirdly, ‘lifetime’ should mean something – one idea is that your entitlements to funded qualifications at level 2 and 3 ‘refresh’ in later life, through a learning account. Finally, and probably most importantly, I want the Prime Minister, or the Skills Minister, or a devo-Mayor once they’re elected in May, to pledge to eradicate poor basic skills. We desperately need some political ambition and leadership in this area,’ he explained.
What is also needed is support from employers. After all, if we make these strides in order to support and help adults upskill and bridge any knowledge gaps, it can be disheartening if employers aren’t willing to give them a chance. Just like the changing ways we obtain an education, whether it be through online courses or an apprenticeship, the recruitment landscape need to adapt to the way in which people are now seeking ways to learn.
After all, for some people, employment is the reason why they’re venturing back into learning in the first place.
Spellman believes that the support of employers will be crucial when it comes to encouraging lifelong learning and reiterates Chowen’s point about skills needing to be rejuvenated now and again.
‘As the All Party Group for Adult Education identified, I believe that employers have a major role in helping adult learners – both those already in the workforce and those looking to get in. We are all likely to work longer (and live longer) so no matter what we do, the skills we leave school with will need refreshing and topping up several times over the course of a career. Employers need to recognise and support that happening.’
At Hotcourses, we remain positive and can’t wait to see what plans the government have for lifelong learning and how it all pans out. We’ll definitely be keeping our eyes on developments.
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Safeera is Editor of Whatuni and a journalist from Kingston University. Always the inquisitive, her writing spans across a number of areas such as sustainability, fashion, lifestyle and now education. Her belief that you never stop learning and passionate nature has taken her to New York City as part of her degree and across the airwaves on national radio talking about the issues that matter to her.