Why the 2020s must be the 'lifelong learning decade'

Politicians must see that adult education is an agent of social change and community progression, says Mark Malcomson
21st November 2019, 5:45pm


Why the 2020s must be the 'lifelong learning decade'

Adult Education: The 2020s Must Be The Decade Of Lifelong Learning, Says Mark Malcolmson

In the past year, adult education has had an unusually high level of focus from politicians. Labour and the Liberal Democrats both supported commissions to explore future priorities for lifelong learning, the Commons Education Select Committee inquiry into skills was well underway and the Augar Review has been completed. This impetus has carried through into the early days of the election campaign with some very bold policy and funding announcements emerging from all parties even before their full manifestos have been published.

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There are still weeks to go in the campaign, however, and any new government, whatever its complexion or mix, will have the Brexit deadline to deal with and could be quickly deflected from domestic issues. The institutes for adult learning - the network of providers supporting around 120,000 students between us - are keen to see adult education maintain its profile into 2020 and beyond. There are some urgent issues we feel that a new government needs to address:

Election 2019: The key issues for adult education

  • Cultivating a culture of learning for life, making learning the norm and accessible to all.
  • Understanding that learning throughout all stages of life contributes positively to health and wellbeing as well as employment and skills.
  • Recognising that adult learning supports communities and individuals poorly served by the rest of the education system and delivers high-quality specialist skills that are not found elsewhere.
  • Increasing funding and giving the sector a clear horizon to be able to make long-term decisions and investment after a decade of brutal cuts.

Regarding the aim of cultivating a culture of learning for life: if even those of us in the sector are pleasantly surprised when a politician mentions adult education, this suggests we have a long way to go before lifelong learning is the norm in the UK. Campaigns such as the Association of Colleges' Love Our Colleges are beginning to make inroads and are very welcome, but we have a long way to go.  Especially given our profile compared with those of FE and HE in general.

The impact of living longer and working longer

Policymakers are beginning to recognise the changing nature of work and how upskilling and reskilling will become a constant, as we live longer and work longer. Remaining economically active is only one part of the equation and we need to appreciate how lifelong learning helps us to remain physically and mentally active and better connected to our families and our communities. In all parts of life, having confidence and resilience, as well as greater powers of critical thinking and empathy, contribute to our wellbeing. All of these are hugely increased by continued participation in learning throughout life, so we cannot afford to let adult education exist under the radar and continue to wither away.

In addition, there is a growing consensus that our education system entrenches inequality. Those who get on well in the school system are much more likely to continue learning and reap its rewards in later life while others who leave with few or no qualifications, or were perhaps excluded, never catch up. The current system of adult community learning makes some inroads in terms of social mobility and social justice but it does not reach enough people to really make a difference to society as a whole.

Almost all research and personal testimony convincingly proves that participation in adult learning brings positive results. What's more, there are as many different positive outcomes as there are learners - everyone's experience is subtly different and might result in health improvements, breaking down societal barriers: making new friends, deeper cultural understanding or finding a new job.

The challenge for the funding system is to encourage this and not crush it. The majority of national and regional skills strategies treat adult education as a vehicle for upskilling and reskilling for employment. This is, of course, extremely important but it limits what adult education can achieve and it risks reducing the number of adult learners to a smaller pool consisting only of those who are seen as priorities in the workforce.

We would like to see national and regional government policy embracing - and funding - a wider range of adult learning, acknowledging the various outcomes it achieves. Where it brings health outcomes, let's see this reflected in support for social prescribing schemes or investment in programmes to improve mental health and wellbeing. Certainly, the evidence base for the health and wellbeing benefits of adult education is strong enough to make this case.

The health benefits of lifelong learning

Likewise, the contribution which adult learning makes to community cohesion by bringing people of different backgrounds together to achieve a greater understanding of each other's viewpoints. Adult education courses offer an accessible, affordable and friendly way for people to get together in a safe and structured environment. These considerations should be at the forefront in future strategies for social integration, combating loneliness and any programme which seeks to bring communities together and help individuals become less isolated - exemplified by the residential institutes of adult learning. 

There is a strong vein in adult education of specialist provision. Specialist in the sense of programmes that are unique to specific providers and that attract students from across the country. An example of this is City Lit's award-winning provision for lipreading and British Sign Language - and its commitment to the #HearMyLips campaign, supporting the growing number of students dealing with deafness and hearing loss.

This could also be specialist in the sense of students following pathways through adult learning to acquire skills and qualifications that enable them to pursue distinctive or technical careers. The contribution of adult learning providers such as Morley College London to the creative industries, for example, ought to be acknowledged more widely. Students studying subjects such as music production, textile design or digital art at adult education colleges can translate their new skills into careers.

In all these instances, the number of people taking advantage of these opportunities would be greatly increased if the channels for information, advice and guidance were better supported, with a better understanding of the needs of mature adults at all stages of their lives. It is essential that the new government promotes a culture of learning where everyone is encouraged and able to take part and able to find provision close to where they live or work.

The need for more funding

In terms of making any of this happen, it is a glaring fact that funding for adult education has fallen dramatically over the past decade at least. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies has pointed out so starkly, total funding for adult education and apprenticeships fell by 45 per cent in real terms between 2009-10 and 2017-18. We want to see the new chancellor's first budget setting out a forward projection that restores funding levels to at least their 2010 levels.

Whatever the complexion of the next government, all parties appear to acknowledge that adult learning is an agent of social change, and individual and community progression. Few other interventions can deliver such unquestionable social good but it requires a government that recognises adult learning's potential and prioritises it to realise its full impact. Whether this is through a national adult education strategy or by mainstreaming lifelong learning in other cross-cutting strategies is a matter for debate. Whichever way, having a minister or a secretary of state who will champion adult education in all its forms is essential. They must travel beyond the Department for Education's sanctuary buildings and reach out to colleagues across all government departments - and increasingly to the Mayoral Combined Authorities and GLA - to put lifelong learning at the heart of the nation's future prosperity and wellbeing.

Mark Malcomson CBE is the principal of City Lit, and chair of the Institutes for Adult Learning

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