Often forgotten, the Cinderella service end of education and yet such an opportunity waiting in the wings. For too many people adult education will inspire a vague memory of night school, the evening classes that were on offer, and often as an opportunity to learn a new craft or hobby.
Adult education is little understood except by those involved with it. But amongst those who provide it, and those who receive you will find a committed and dedicated workforce and incredibly motivated students of all ages who see it as a lifeline to a better job and career. A small budget – and a budget that’s down 40% since 2010, but through adult education there is an opportunity waiting to blossom for adults – and for employers.
Wind back to when we were constantly talking about the skills shortage.
I was very struck as a relatively new minister in Department for Education, going to WorldSkills in Abu Dhabi in November 2017. I listened to Ministers from around the world saying the same thing, impressed with our apprenticeship reforms and emphasis on technical education but all worried how they were going to find the skilled workforce they needed not just for existing jobs but for the jobs of the future. And the solution lies then where it lies today – in the adult population. We may have less jobs when we come out of this current crisis but the same skills gaps will remain and if economic policy is effective the jobs will come back in new growth areas with even greater gaps in skills.
There has rightly been an upfront and significant focus on younger people affected by the current crisis. Many young people will be worried about their future but they are joined by a large and growing crowd of young and older adults who see their jobs melt away in the fallout. Add to that those who hang onto their job but could upskill and get into to higher-skilled, higher paid jobs and we have a huge workforce who we need. And they will need a suite of intensive learning care and support.
It remains to be seen what employment opportunities exist, what businesses survive, who will grow and where but we know we had significant shortages in the public sector which will not be shrinking anytime soon and so government has a fantastic opportunity if it puts in the money that’s needed.
Government must cast its reskilling and training net wide and not yet again leave adults out of the plans. Treasury needs to count the social cost of their policies and realise the potential out there not just from young people but from older people as well. We need a whole age approach. The country needs everyone to be working to their full potential – and people deserve to get the opportunity to do so.
If Treasury need an additional impetus for coming up with cash, then they should note that education is good for your health. Good health correlates closely with good education achievement. The case is rarely made by education providers but as Professor Sir Michael Marmott stated in his report, Health Equity in England: The Marmott Review 10 Years On, health inequalities are growing. The report cites the particularly steep declines in funding for sixth form (post-16) and further education and goes on to talk about improving access and use of quality lifelong learning. One of the report’s recommendations is to increase the number of post-school apprenticeships and support in-work training throughout the life course.
When Public Health could not be more uppermost in everyone’s minds, the public health case is there – please note HMT.
There is also wealth of evidence out there from other interested groups. City and Guilds: Missing Millions and the CSJ: The Long Game: How to reboot skills training for disadvantaged adults. The stats are grim: 6 million adults not qualified to Level 2; 9 million adults lacking functional literacy or numeracy; and over 11 million not having the full set of basic skills. And hidden within these numbers are stark regional differences and inequalities which are well documented in the Marmott reports.
So how do we help people get the skills and training they need?
Lifelong Learning is often the cry from people who enjoyed school, did well and found university or college an enlightening experience. A useful shorthand for those in the know but I despair when I hear it. This isn’t how it’s viewed by everyone – myself included. We need to talk in a different language.
Many of the people represented in these stats of the reports above did not enjoy learning at school for a wide variety of reasons. Many of them will have suffered the weekly humiliation from a teacher who with the best will in the world is frustrated by their student’s underperformance. Many will have repeatedly failed exams with a subsequent loss of self-esteem and a feeling when they left education that they can never do better and so what's the point. Many will now lack the aspiration of belief that they could do more. And so the very thought of having to continue to learn throughout their lives will fill them with dread, anxiety and not with the joy that those who make policy feel they should. Different approaches, different language and an imaginative, person focussed system that allows people to start to believe that they can achieve more, can get a better paid job, that there are no limits on their aspiration and dreams
So how do we encourage people to upskill, get trained, get qualifications?
How do we make sure people get the basic skills to get them started? How do we make sure progression routes are available? How do we shine a stronger light on the ‘not very much talked about or understood’ Level 4 and 5 qualifications that are needed?
The Department for Education did some very good preliminary research in preparation for the National Retraining Scheme; what barriers exist to people learning; in what setting do they want to learn, what motivates them to learn; what support do they need; what should be the blend of classroom and online learning; how do people upskill with caring responsibilities, children, bills to pay, their existing job (sometimes 2 jobs); and having made the sacrifice to learn what do they get out of it? For most a realistic chance of a job is a big motivator and essential if they fitting in learning to an already busy life. A number of pilots have been run across many diverse areas to dig into the detail and come up with answers to some of these questions.
Although not every policy box will have been checked and double-checked I believe the only way to get this going is to roll out schemes and adapt as needed. Gathering more evidence will not necessarily yield better results - there will be diminishing returns and the clock is ticking and this is urgent. We need a framework that can be adapted; can be quick to change and respond to the needs on the ground; we need a light touch from central government to allow maximum flexibility and agility; and devolution is key. It is likely to be the more efficient and effective method of delivery. Ministers rightly need to make sure taxpayers money is well spent, but please don’t lets bog this down with so much bureaucracy it is stifled at birth – better to have oversight, work with councils and combined authorities and create a renewed enthusiasm and drive to get this going.
The very early feedback I received as a minister on the devolution of the Adult Education Budget was very positive.
There was a real appetite to get it right in the local areas and each of them took up the baton with real gusto. Locally elected politicians know a great deal about their local areas. They know the businesses, they know what they need and they know the local public sector well. I was struck at the very different approaches they had taken, all locally tailored. The day of reckoning for local politicians and the decisions they make on how they spend money comes at election time. But through all my time in politics, I have always been struck that locally elected politicians want to get it right because they care about their area. Devolving money to local councils who have the intimate knowledge of the economic needs of the area and where the growth in jobs will come, is a quick way to get this done. Young people not yet in jobs, people who lose their jobs and adults who we want to inspire to get into better-paid jobs need advice on where the shortages exist so people better informed about how to direct their training and education will be vital – and alongside the careers services, the local councils and combined authorities will know all that.
In my home town of Guildford, the Guildford Institute, known then as the Guildford Mechanics Institute was founded in the 1830s as ‘part of a nation-wide response to the demands of the Industrial Revolution and social change. It was founded by local tradesman who were keen to improve themselves and to promote learning for others wishing to learn new skills. Times have changed but we talk about the 4th Industrial Revolution, we have an Industrial Strategy and we have a clear need for people to learn new skills. We could learn some lessons from the past. But we need political will, the money, the drive and urgency to implement a 21st-century response.
Adult education is often a second or third chance for someone.
Learning in school does not work for everyone and we should recognise that and allow there to be ways back to education and training. The most striking story I heard during my two years as Minster was an older woman who I met at an adult learning centre. She had 3 older children all at home, was a single parent and had left school without any qualifications. She was studying for a Level 5 in social care having worked her way up from Level 2. I asked her what it was that had suddenly made her go back to training and education and she said: “Because I thought I was worth it and deserved it”. Government needs to believe that too. Government needs to put money behind warm words on adult education and levelling up – it needs to truly believe people are worth it. And for Government the economic, social and health benefits will be worth every penny they spend.
Rt Hon Anne Milton - Former Minister of State for Apprenticeships and Skills