Stephen Evans is deputy chief executive of NIACE

After the excesses of Christmas, many of us will now be thinking about how to pay off the bills, a task made harder by the now annual shock of higher train fares as we return to work. No wonder then that many New Year resolutions focus on changing career or learning a new skill.

These are the sort of issues the newly launched Learning & Work Institute, formed by the merger of NIACE and the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion, seeks to tackle. They are big questions. How do we keep the economy growing? How do we ensure everyone has the chance to build a career and be an active citizen? How do we boost participation and access for all in our society?

Learning and skills are central to each, and we will be exploring that role and making the case for learning. The Spending Review settlement may have been better than feared, but the challenge now is how to deliver it. So, for example, for colleges and providers to encourage people to invest in their own learning, people need to see how it will benefit their career. For employers to draw down the new Apprenticeship Levy, they need to see how it will benefit their business. All of this points to big changes ahead, and that's before we think about area-based reviews...

These challenges are among their starkest in London, where 700,000 people earn below the London Living Wage and some of the country's richest areas sit alongside some of the poorest. This holds people back: one in eight Londoners spends more than half their income on housing and earning their own home is distant unobtainable dream. These are the challenges the new Mayor, to be elected in May, will have to tackle.

Part of the answer needs to be building more houses and investing in transport capacity. But part of the answer must lie in helping more Londoners to progress their careers and earn more. Here's where Further Education is central, and why colleges see a huge spike of interest in January. And intermediate skills are particularly crucial.

But it's also where we need to do better for two reasons:

  • Getting more people learning. Since the introduction of Advanced Learner Loans for people aged 24 and over learning at Level 3, enrolment in learning has fallen by at least one third. In 2014/15 alone, £200m of learning opportunities were lost across England. Not enough people are learning at intermediate level, and the loans system has increased this challenge; and
  • Ensuring learning benefits people and employers. Learning in itself is not enough, new skills need to be utilised by employers if they are to help people earn more and businesses to grow. The Government assumes that 50% of money loaned for learning will not be repaid, as people will not earn enough to do so. Not enough people and employers fully use their learning in the workplace.

This is where Learning & Work Institute's flagship Ambition London programme comes in. With support from the JP Morgan Charitable Foundation, we will be looking at how to increase the number of people learning and also the impact of that learning. We'll be focusing on the retail and health and social care sectors, as these are among the largest employers in London and have the highest prevalence of low pay.

We'll be working with employers, Local Authorities, colleges and training providers to look at new ways of engaging people in learning, new ways of delivering training, and new ways of supporting people and employers to make the most of that learning. We're also going to set up a nationwide network of providers and projects that are helping people to progress in their careers: from Glasgow, London, Plymouth, Manchester and elsewhere, there are exciting new approaches underway.

Advanced Learner Loans are here to stay. We need to work together to ensure that intermediate skills gaps and low pay aren't. London's a great city: Ambition London aims to help everyone share in the opportunities it brings.

Stephen Evans is deputy chief executive of NIACE

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