Is there a problem with the Lifetime Skills Guarantee?

If the prime minister's skills guarantee is too narrow, it will exclude vast swathes of adults who need the support the most, writes this leader
22nd October 2020, 1:01pm


Is there a problem with the Lifetime Skills Guarantee?
Lifetime Skills Guarantee: The Problem With The Pm's Plan

Since the extent of the global pandemic started to become apparent, it is very clear that adult education will be crucial to post-Covid economic and societal recovery. The need to retrain, reskill and upskill the high numbers of individuals whose employment has been negatively impacted by Covid-19 is obvious. The way to deliver this opportunity to people across the UK, less so. However, encouragingly, national and local governments are beginning to place action against words. 

Boris Johnson's announcement at the end of September of a "Lifetime Skills Guarantee" was a clear, positive step in the direction of embedding a culture of lifelong learning. Like so many other further and adult education institutions and providers, City Lit welcomed this commitment. Nevertheless, we know that this announcement follows decades of underfunding in the sector and that, crucially, this announcement and the associated funding may well be too late for the significant number of people already impacted by job losses. 

While the Lifetime Skills Guarantee rightly focuses on the key role that lifelong learning will have on our economic recovery, focusing on vocational and links to employment, we have already urged the government not to lose sight of the important role that education also plays in supporting those who require broader skill development - confidence, communication, critical thinking. All of these are hugely important in enhancing people's ability to get a job and to progress once they are in one. 

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Equally, just last week, London mayor Sadiq Khan spoke about the crucial part that adult education will have to play in the next phase of Covid. He said: "Together we need to focus on the long-term recovery of this capital and the country where many of London's great institutions will have a key part to play in promoting mental health, wellbeing and community. Our institutions of adult learning [IALs], like City Lit, have a unique contribution to make, with so many programmes and courses." 

We know that the government understand this. On a recent visit to City Lit, Gillian Keegan, minister for apprenticeships and skills, commented that "post-Covid-19, as we return to our new normal, places like City Lit will be essential for the recovery of London and communities across the country". 

However, if the level of support provided by the new Lifetime Skills Guarantee is overly narrow, there is a danger of excluding vast swathes of the exact communities we are talking about and who need education support. 

Long-term investment in lifelong learning 

The link between lifelong learning, gainful employment and positive mental health is long-established. By supporting those who need to reskill to access employment, who have high levels of anxiety, depression and other forms of mental health challenges and by offering a safe and stimulating environment, we are able to play a significant role in not only economic recovery but also societal recovery. The investment needs to be seen as a long-term one, balanced by not spending in the future on patching up the problems, which are being caused by the situation as it stands right now.

At the start of lockdown, City Lit took the strategic decision to put as much of our course provision as possible online. We are now close to 1,700 classes being delivered online for this term - and with the pandemic set to continue, we are planning a further 1,800 courses to be delivered online for future terms. For a college that previously delivered the majority of courses in-person, this is a tremendous achievement. 

Over this time, we have worked hard to ensure that the quality experience any student receives when they come to City Lit can, in some way, be replicated online. Throughout the pandemic, it has been important for us to continue to provide crucial help and support to those people who need it the most, including students with learning and physical disabilities, as well as reaching out to those who engage in learning as a means of providing invaluable social interaction, which is fundamental in combatting loneliness and isolation. 

However, maintaining this level of support and planning for how to support those who need to reskill to find work is reliant on sustainable funding for the sector, which is not restricted to the narrowest range of provision. 

We know there are myriad sectors that all believe theirs is the one which should be prioritised for funding, and that there will be winners and losers when it comes to the pledges that the government is making. Where the government has prioritised learning for five- to 19-year-olds and university students, we would like to see that commitment shown to adult learners. 

We are on the verge of an unemployment crisis in the UK, with unemployment at its highest rate in three years and redundancy rates at their highest since 2009. The ecosystems of IALs not only maintain roles within communities but also provide pastoral support as well as meeting the educational needs of their students. 

The vote of confidence from the prime minister, mayor of London and ministers, as well as countless MPs who have commented or taken part in subsequent debates, is very welcome. 

However, we now need to start to see the allocation of funds, which can be used across provision that upskills those who need it and is not restricted only to those with fewer formal qualifications. In this way, we can begin to take the first tentative steps in the direction of recovering from the impact of 2020.

Phil Chamberlain is the executive director for external engagement at City Lit

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