From education to employment

General election 2019: Appraising the parties’ adult education promises

Elena Magrini, Researcher, Centre for Cities

#GE19 – Political parties all agree on the importance of adult education, but the next step is to ensure it works

While they may disagree on the best way forward, it is positive to see all political parties committing to an increased focus on adult education and lifelong learning.

As I wrote previously, the labour market is in continuous evolution and two-thirds of the future 2030 workforce have already left compulsory education.

So it will be impossible to fix the UK’s skills shortages, improve productivity and ensure every individual is able to adapt to labour market changes, without a complete shift in culture towards adult education and lifelong learning.

A complete shift in culture towards adult education and lifelong learning

The Liberal Democrats perhaps put forward the most sophisticated model: a £10,000 Skills Wallet for each individual that will be unlocked at the age of 25 in three different stages to help people update their skills and stay relevant in an ever-changing world of work.

But Labour and the Conservatives also made important commitments in this space:

Labour pledged a free entitlement for education to anyone who is training to achieve level 3 qualifications, and six years of free education for those training up to an undergraduate level qualification.

While the Conservatives focused their attention on individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds, allocating £500 million to skills development as part of their upcoming UK Shared Prosperity Fund. They also pledged to create a National Skills Fund to support talent development in small and medium sized enterprises.

Our Urban Manifesto sets out our city-focused, five-point plan to transform Britain:

If politicians seeking the public’s votes tomorrow (12 Dec) want to make Britain a more prosperous and productive place to live then the economic performance of cities needs to be considered at this election.


Create a City Centre Productivity Fund

The next Government should establish a £5 billion city centre productivity fund for councils to bid into to make their city centres more attractive places to do business.


Establish an Adult Education Service

The next Government should establish an Adult Education Service, similar to Singapore’s system that assigns £300 a year for training every person over 25 without good GCSEs.


Make it easier to build more homes in high-demand cities

The next Government should introduce a flexible zoning system, where development can proceed unless the council blocks it.


Give all cities London-style powers to manage bus networks

The next Government should extend the bus franchising powers already available to metro mayors to all cities, and it should provide £50 million funding to encourage mayors to use the powers they already have.


Give cities more power

The next Government should set out a clear plan for ensuring that all of the existing metro mayors, and any new ones created, are given powers and resources comparable to their international counterparts.

Tailoring support to those areas that need it the most

Our research “Will the robots really take our jobs?” shows that approximately one in five jobs in the UK are at high-risk of displacement by 2030, but the risks and opportunities are not evenly spread across the country. It is lower-skilled, routine, manual occupations that will first be displaced.

While adult take up of education is down everywhere in the country, it is places more vulnerable to automation that have seen the sharpest drops.

Any interventions in adult education and lifelong learning must be interpreted through the lenses of geography, ensuring that support is tailored to those areas that need it the most.

Breaking the low-skilled equilibrium

Initiatives need, first and foremost, to focus on reducing the number of people with no or few qualifications.

To help places such as Burnley and Birmingham to break the low-skilled equilibrium of low education achievements and low-skilled jobs at high-risk of automation they are trapped in, the number of people with no qualifications must drastically decrease.

As mentioned previously, there is great scope for interventions from the Government in this space, as low-skilled individuals are much less likely to take-up training and yet are those set to benefit the most from these types of interventions.

However the tricky bit when it comes to adult education is that little is known about what works:

  • Is it on-the-job training that is most efficient, or classroom activity?
  • Is it one-year-long courses with a qualification attached at the end what works best, or a one-day course?
  • And what helps individuals’ take-up adult education?
  • Do we need to focus on outreach activities, or more flexible provision?

Our sister organisation – the – offers some insights on the most efficient ways to provide employment training and apprenticeships. But we still only have a partial picture of what works in this space.

The new Government should resist the temptation of announcing a new programme as soon as in post, and focus on reviewing evidence available from other countries, such as Singapore, Denmark and France, to design a programme that would be suitable and effective in the long-term.

Places at high-risk of automation and with low take-up in adult education cannot be the guinea-pigs; they need to know that their efforts will pay off.

Making the most of existing resources

Lastly, it is vital the UK makes the most of existing resources it has in this space. While the whole country needs a shift towards lifelong learning, local bodies are best placed to ensure new provision is relevant to their local labour market needs.

This doesn’t necessarily require more devolution – a topic parties were much more hesitant about – rather, it means letting local authorities take the lead in shaping delivery and provision of adult education at the local level by playing a convening role and making a more efficient use of the resources available in the local economy.

Once the dust of the elections will have settled, there’s a risk that parties will resort once again to fight against each other over Brexit, putting aside their election commitments.

Yet, lifelong learning is the key to a more prosperous, united country – with or without Brexit – and we need to ensure our politicians, of any side, will make of it a priority.

Elena Magrini, Researcher, Centre for Cities

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