Stephen Evans, Chief Executive of Learning and Work Institute

#100YearLife - #LifelongLearning Matters 

The case for lifelong learning is widely made. Learning and improving your skills improves your chances of being in work and climbing the career ladder. It boosts productivity and economic growth. But more than this, learning helps people be active in their communities, improve their health and wellbeing, and access public services which are increasingly digital by default.

This case is strengthening over time. Economic change, including advances in technology, is changing the jobs available and the skills needed for them. Reports of robots taking our jobs grab the headlines, but advances in technology are having a more profound and nuanced impact: creating new jobs, replacing old jobs, and changing the skills needed in many current jobs.

There is a rising bar of skills needed to get into the labour market at all, and a changing set of skills needed over time in the same job or to retrain for a new career.

Meanwhile, longer working lives, with 50-year careers becoming the norm, means people will be living with this changing labour market for longer. Adaptability, updating skills and changing careers will be essential. At the same time, an aging population means that 80% of our 2030 workforce have already left school: we cannot simply wait for young people to replace adults in the workforce.

Decade of decline

The bad news is that the 2010s were a decade of decline in lifelong learning in England.

Just one in three adults say they participated in learning in the last three years, the lowest in the 23-year history of Learning and Work Institute’s annual survey.

This is partly because the adult education budget has been cut by around 45% since 2010.

There are stark and profound inequalities in access to learning by socioeconomic group and region, important for a Government that has promised to ‘level up’ opportunity across the country. To tackle these challenges, we do need more investment, but also new ways of investing too.

Our research shows a need to inspire people to want to learn, support people with the cost of learning, and find ways to fit learning around work and home life. It also shows clear gaps in existing policy: support is limited for those looking to retrain and, while apprenticeships are great, by definition they are not an option for people who are self-employed (you cannot apprentice yourself).

Toward a National Skills Fund

The National Skills Fund is expected to be worth £3 billion over the next five years, and aim to match contributions from individuals and employers. It sits alongside existing funds including the £1.5 billion per year adult education budget and £2.8 billion per year apprenticeship levy, as well as the developing National Retraining Scheme and Shared Prosperity Fund intended to replace European Social Funds.


This gives a real opportunity to innovate and tackle these structural challenges in a holistic way.

Top Three Recommendations:

1: Take a joined-up approach with local leadership

The National Skills Fund will only work if we decide what it’s for and think about how all the pieces of the jigsaw, the many other funding streams and policies, fit together.

The National Skills Fund is a great opportunity to align new skills provision with infrastructure investment and priorities identified in national and local industrial strategies. In this way we can help boost economic growth, which has been weak since 2008 in part because improvements in skills have stalled. We need to avoid a predict and provide approach. But what about focusing effort on co-designing provision in key sectors in different parts of the country with employers and trades unions? And making this provision free at all levels for those that need it?

We should also empower local areas, such as Mayoral Combined Authorities, to lead and use their convening power to join up support. Beyond this, their role could be anything from the ability to set financial incentives to target provision on Local Industrial Strategy priorities through to full responsibility for commissioning the fund, perhaps based on outcome agreements setting out what will be achieved through the funding (such as the number of people finding work).

2: Focus on learning at all levels

We need to increase the proportion of people qualified at levels 3 and above, and to help people already qualified at this level to retrain where they need to. That’s something the National Skills Fund could usefully do, given it’s not something the adult education budget currently supports well.

However, this should not be at the expense of the nine million adults who have low literacy or numeracy, and even more with low digital skills or those without a level 2 qualification. This is increasingly a barrier both to finding work and to being adaptable to changes in the workplace or need to change careers. Yet the number of adults improving their skills has fallen by more than one third in recent years.

The National Skills Fund should, therefore, have as much focus on increasing take-up of basic skills as it should on promoting level 3 learning. And learning should mean modules as well as full qualifications – flexibility is key.

3: New approaches to engagement and delivery

The National Skills Fund is an opportunity to design and test new approaches. For example, Learning and Work Institute’s research shows that many adults don’t even think about learning or how improving skills could benefit them. Let’s test new ways to inspire and engage adults in learning.

We could also test, in new provision designed with employers aligned with the Industrial Strategy, new approaches to supporting people with the non-course costs, such as maintenance, of learning. We would need to rigorously evaluate all these new approaches, encourage innovation from providers, and build in work to disseminate these findings. That would help us build the evidence base on what works, and spread the use of best practice more widely.

Stephen Evans, Chief Executive of Learning and Work Institute


Making a Success of the National Skills Fund

We enter the 2020s when adults and employers are confronted with unprecedented economic and labour market change, in this context NCFE and Campaign for Learning asked twelve authors to set out their initial thoughts on the National Skills Fund, and the journey towards a ‘right to retraining’. 

These leading thinkers recommend policies for the reform of adult education to support a changing economy in this collection of articles.

Exploring the proposed National Skills Fund and an individual’s right to retraining in more detail, these articles highlight some of the major challenges the policy faces, alongside issues which are set to further impact the economy.

The authors are:

  • Stephen Evans, Chief Executive of Learning and Work Institute - Renewing Lifelong Learning through the National Skills Fund

  • Tom Bewick, Chief Executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies (FAB) - An Adult Skills Account based National Skills Fund

  • Mark Dawe, Chief Executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) - Retain the NRS alongside NSF financed Individual Learning Accounts

  • Ewart Keep, Director of SKOPE, University of Oxford - A Sector Focused NRS, An Adult Focused National Skills Fund

  • Jamie Driscoll, Mayor, North Tyne Combined Authority - Devolving the National Skills Fund to Elected Mayors and LEPs

  • Gemma Gathercole, Productivity & Skills Executive Officer at the Coventry and Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership (CWLEP) - The National Skills Fund in a Mixed Devolution Area

  • David Hughes, Chief Executive, Association of Colleges - Introducing the National Skills Fund alongside the NRS and AEB

  • Simon Parkinson, CEO and General Secretary, Workers’ Education Association (WEA) - The National Skills Fund – Engaging the Whole Community

  • Kim Chaplain, Director for Work, Centre for Ageing Better - The National Skills Fund – No Older Adults Left Behind

  • Greg Wade, Policy Manager, Universities UK - Retraining and the Graduate Workforce

  •  Andy Westwood, University of Manchester - From £3bn to a ‘Right to Retraining’


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