From education to employment

Encouraging change is vital

With the US election next week, I’m reminded of Barack Obama’s historic pre-Presidential mantra of “Change we can believe in”. Four years on, US voters have learnt the universal truth that change can be hard. Whether it’s the mammoth job of fixing the US economy or just the stresses of a new job, moving house or learning new skills, it’s something we can all identify with. As a result, we often put it off – who hasn’t stayed in a job they’ve outgrown or put off making the most of their gym membership? In fact, according to some research we undertook recently, the vast majority of people (88 per cent) put off making any change in their lives despite 90 per cent of people thinking doing something – like learning new skills or losing weight – would improve their lives.

It’s therefore vital we encourage people to make changes such as improving their skills while ensuring it’s as simple as possible for anyone – whatever their situation – to do so. With the global economy changing rapidly and workforces around the world becoming ever more skilled, standing still – as an individual or as a country – is just not an option. We cannot let inaction leave us behind.

This means we, in the skills sector, need to change too: whether that’s policymakers, organisations or potential learners. We need to welcome people with open arms, be crystal clear in our communications, support people through change and provide simple progression routes. We should also use popular technologies and digital channels to reach out to anyone, wherever they are.

There have been two great recent examples of what this means in practice. Firstly, Nick Clegg announced at the Liberal Democrat party conference a new ‘catch-up premium’ for every child who leaves primary school below the expected level in English or maths. This is an additional £500 available to support change at a crucial point in a young person’s life – as they move from primary to secondary school.

The Deputy PM has committed to doing whatever it takes to ensure children are not left behind. This could mean summer school, catch-up classes or one-to-one tuition. This is a clear sign to parents that the Government is encouraging and supporting positive change in education.

Meanwhile, for those leaving FE a new website has been launched to help students pick the right degree course. Again, this is an example of encouraging and facilitating change. Developed by BIS, the new site provides extensive information for more than 31,000 courses in the UK, including student satisfaction ratings, graduate salaries and employment, tuition fees and financial support, and the cost of accommodation. The result is students will be able to search and compare information about courses across the UK, focusing on the factors most important for them. In the long run, this means satisfied students and a more skilled workforce.

We can learn from these initiatives, but should go further to support people to make a change and get the skills they deserve. Specifically, we should use popular technologies to create as many opportunities to support people into learning. learndirect is working towards this aim by providing remote, supported learning online with email and phone assistance – all delivered by a specialist centre in Leicester. This allows people to work towards a qualification from the comfort of their own home.

Online communication and learning is often the most effective way of connecting with people from all walks of life and, according to the 2012 NIACE Adult Participation in Learning Survey, the most popular source of information about learning is the Internet. More than a third (34 per cent) of people say the Internet was the first method they would use – up from just two per cent ten years ago.

It’s clear that the web and the explosion in smartphones and tablets are some of the key enablers of change. With the number of people in the UK who have been unemployed for a year or more now at 897,000 it is vital the sector does all it can to harness the ‘iPhone-factor’ to encourage change and support people through learning. Doing so will improve their lives, build their confidence and increase their job prospects. Ultimately, this will bring about the changes in skills which we can all support and believe in.

We know change can be hard, but it is up to us to help people overcome their nervousness about asking for help, or worries about costs and lack of time. Whatever is stopping people improving their lives through learning, we need to show them there’s a way around it – and with that a better future for individuals and the economy as a whole.

To find out more about how learndirect is supporting people to make a change to their lives by signing up to learning, visit

Sarah Jones is chief executive of learndirect, the nationwide e-teaching organisation

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