Adult education needs a revolution, say MPs

Committee calls on the government to revolutionise adult education with a community learning centre in every town
18th December 2020, 10:00pm
Kate Parker

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Adult education needs a revolution, say MPs

https://www.tes.com/magazine/news/general/adult-education-needs-revolution-say-mps
Lifelong Learning & Skills: Adult Education Needs A Revolution, Say Mps

There should be a community learning centre in every town as well as individual learning accounts for everyone, according to the Commons Education Select Committee

In a new report published today, A Plan for an Adult Skills and Lifelong Learning Revolution, the committee calls on the government to revolutionise adult education and introduce an ambitious long-term strategy.

Participation in adult education is at its lowest rate in 23 years, and funding in adult skills has declined by 45 per cent in the past decade, warns the report. Research published by the Learning and Work Institute found that 44 per cent of adults in lower socioeconomic groups had taken part in any form of learning in the past three years, compared with 74 per cent of those in the highest socioeconomic groups.


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The report says that adults who left education aged 16 or younger were less than half as likely to have accessed any form of learning in the past three years, compared with those who stayed in education until at least the age of 21.

Adult education: Poor access to lifelong learning

Committee chair Robert Halfon said that poor access to lifelong learning was one of the "great social injustices" of our time.

"Despite the overwhelming benefits for both the economy and individuals, participation is at its lowest level in 23 years, funding has fallen by nearly 50 per cent in a decade and around half of adults from the most disadvantaged background have received no training since leaving school," he said.

"Despite well-intentioned reforms in recent years, the government's approach to adult education has too often suffered from 'initiativitis', lurching from one policy priority to the next. A holistic approach is required that provides consistent opportunities for adults to access learning and reskilling opportunities wherever they live and whatever their background. This is essential not just for people's personal development, but for our country to fill the skills gaps in our ever-changing economy."

A four-pillar approach 

The committee suggests a four-pillar approach to create a system and culture of lifelong learning that encourages education at any age.

1. A community learning centre in every town

The report says that there has been a 32 per cent decline in participation in community learning between 2008-9 and 2018-19, and that the Department for Education does not fully grasp the value and purpose of community learning. 

The committee says that the centres do not need to be new buildings or organisations. Existing organisations and assets, such as colleges, church halls and libraries, could be utilised. 

2. Individual learning accounts

The committee recognises the failures of the ILA scheme in the early 2000s, but maintains that individual learning accounts could kickstart participation. The report says that ILAs must have a "truly lifelong emphasis", with adults receiving top-up investments throughout their working lives to revitalise training and upskilling.

3. Fee grants for part-time HE

Part-time student numbers in higher education dropped by 53 per cent between 2008-09 and 2017-18 - to reverse this, the committee says that the DfE must instate fee grants for part-time learners from disadvantaged backgrounds to study courses that meet skills gaps. It also calls for maintenance support loans to be awarded to part-time distance learners. 

4. A skills tax credit to revitalise employer-led training

Almost 40 per cent of employers admitted to training none of their staff last year, says the committee. It calls on the government to introduce tax credits for employers that invest in training for their low-skilled workers. 

'A welcome Christmas present'

Sir Alan Tuckett, vice-chair of the Centenary Commission on Adult Education, said that the report was a "welcome Christmas present."

"It has breadth and a powerful well-argued set of proposals.  What a contrast to the inadequacy of government thinking - declaring a Lifetime Skills Guarantee and then chopping the union learning fund. Let's hope the secretary of state and civil servants will read, ingest and act on its findings in the endlessly delayed White Paper." 

Dame Helen Ghosh, who chaired that commission, said that the report echoed many of the commission's recommendations.

"Like us, they see an ambitious national strategy for adult education as the essential foundation of for action, and the reintroduction of individual learning accounts as the way to empower people to meet their individual needs at home and at work, throughout life," she said.  

"Like us, too, they believe that communities must be at the heart of decision making, recommending a community learning centre in every town. That needs, in our view, to be backed up with community learning accounts so that local groups can identify and build their own provision. And if we are to "build back" a better society post-Covid through lifelong learning, then significantly increased funding across the board is essential, to match the opportunity and the ambition." 

Stephen Evans, chief executive of Learning and Work Institute, said: "Lifelong learning has always been important. But with huge changes to the labour market and the skills that employers need, it's more crucial than ever.

"Our adult participation in learning survey shows there has been a decade of decline in lifelong learning, and the people who could most benefit from participation are least likely to take part.

"The recommendations in this excellent report could make a real difference. We've long called for a personal learning account to help people retrain and upskill throughout their lives."

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