Why a learning entitlement could be a beacon of hope

A new learning entitlement for adults would help those who feel left behind in this crisis, says Gordon Marsden
10th December 2020, 2:15pm
Gordon Marsden


Why a learning entitlement could be a beacon of hope

Coronavirus & Adult Education: A Learning Entitlement Would Provide Light In Dark Times, Says Gordon Marsden

The call-to-arms letter that launched the Right2Learn campaign, as Tes reported on yesterday, states its case urgently and bluntly: "unequal access to education throughout life is a huge, growing cause of inequality in our country. This sows division in our communities, entrenches low skill levels, low wage work and levels down the life chances of millions ...that's why, taking our inspiration from the report last year of the Lifelong Learning Commission, we are calling for a new statutory right to learn for every UK citizen throughout their lives - backed up but strong funding, information, advice and guidance. The terrible toll that Covid has taken on hundreds of thousands of people's lives, livelihoods and life chances makes it imperative that we act to break down the traditional silos across education".

Background: Campaign calls for adult learning entitlement

The Lifelong Learning Commission: Key findings

Adult education: Government announces 400 free courses for adults

Right2Learn must be a lever to address immediate needs for 2021-22, but also part of a road map throughout the 2020s to a strong economy and a better society. It is needed to safeguard the futures of younger adults at risk, who have been heavily hit by Covid-related job losses - not just in hospitality, but now in retail, service industries of food and drink, and the aviation sector. But Right2Learn is also an intergenerational initiative - to harness the enabling skills and experience of people in their 40s and 50s to retrain as the digital world and automation wipe out their jobs.

Giving adults an entitlement to learning

It certainly must reach out to all the areas and disadvantaged towns like Blackpool, where one in five 16- to 24-year-olds is currently on benefits - but also to other priority groups like veterans, ex-offenders, carers, people with disabilities, ESOL learners, adults without basic skills, those from black, Asian and/or minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds and other communities who feel left behind.

Collaboration should be the name of the game - as the College of the Future Commission has emphasised while also advocating a right to learn in its UK-wide reports this autumn. Our Right2Learn campaign website will be a pluralistic platform for all those who believe in the importance of lifelong learning. It will showcase examples that have inspired and expanded skills and outcomes both in HE and FE, as well as online learning. It will also be a place for the voices of learners - underlining that education, at whatever age or level, should be something done with and by learners, and not just to them.

Right2Learn will be a sharp antidote to all the false starts and missed opportunities that have dogged governments over the years for lifelong learning. We should not underestimate that challenge but not be cowed by it. For all our lack of adequate higher-level technical qualifications, compared with nations like Germany and Canada, we have shown capacity to rise to the occasion. The Open University, having last year celebrated its golden anniversary, has not only cemented its role in British society but also transformed itself into an international institution and collaborator.

Gordon Brown, who has endorsed the Right2Learn campaign, has also demonstrated through his Alliance for Full Employment that we do not lack the boldness of ambition and civic conscience to challenge and put substantial flesh and lasting impact on anything the government may bring to the table.

Tackling the economic impact of the coronavirus

The Right2Learn campaign centres around a pledge to introduce a universal, publicly funded right to learn through life, underpinned by a minimum entitlement to fully funded local level 3 provision and the equivalent of six years' publicly funded credits at levels 4 and above, with additional support for priority groups.

But that will not hinder discussion on a range of other issues to underpin this - credit accumulation and transfer, paid time off for training, learning accounts, means-tested maintenance support for adults to get access to learning, plus improved pay and support for staff and trainers in the lifelong learning sector, alongside a national advice and guidance scheme.

Our vision for Right to Learn was one shared by two outstanding educators sadly no longer with us, who I am thinking about as I write this: David Watson, a historian, college principal and vice-chancellor who was the co-chair and co-editor of the enquiry and report entitled Learning Through Life by NIACE; and Bob Fryer, who died this last week - a charismatic principal of Northern College and leader of the commission that advised David Blunkett's Learning Age, which so impressed me as a newly elected MP.

Lifelong learning offers so many wonderful epiphanies. Of course, it is about jobs, economics, productivity, skills, devolution - but it's also about individuals and their families.  I think about the woman I met three times in Blackpool in the 2000s, first as a single mum looking for help with her children and skills, then two years later running a parents' and toddlers' group, and finally preparing to become a primary teacher, after studying at Blackpool and The Fylde College. Or one of my students at the Open University in the 1990s, desperate not to get behind for her exam, to whom I gave a special tutorial as she convalesced from heart surgery.

Right2Learn is for all those people - their hopes, their dreams, their achievements. So go to the website now, sign up to support it if you will, and engage in the debate. It has been a long time coming, but it is a point of light in this traumatic year.

Gordon Marsden was shadow minister for FE, HE and skills from 2015-19 and is a member of the steering group for Right2Learn



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