You would have to search far and wide to find a prominent politician who is opposed to the principle of lifelong learning, so why has it proved so difficult to enact as a lasting political strategy? As members of the Labour Party's Lifelong Learning Commission, we have been grappling with these issues in recent months, and we believe the answer to this – and to the bigger question of what to do about it – can be found in our new Transformative Teaching and Learning in Further Education report. There are five lessons from this report for those who want to improve things for learners.
The first and most obvious lesson is that the people who benefit from lifelong learning are, politically, all too easy to ignore. People like Adam and Nyomi from UCU's project may be at the forefront of the impact of cuts in provision, but often lack the social capital to complain let alone campaign against changes that reduce their life chances.
More on this report: FE teachers face higher workload than those in schools
Metrification and marketisation
Second, the positive outcomes that come from lifelong learning are ill-suited to the era of metrification and marketisation where everything is seen in terms of narrow outputs. As shadow education secretary Angela Rayner says in the foreword to the report, “it reminds us that education is about more than numbers – it’s about the people like me whose lives are transformed by learning”. Further education is a route to empowerment and agency for people from a range of backgrounds. Unlike school, entry points to further education are not governed by age or catchment area, so it can be an open door that provides opportunities for people with a range of different purposes.
Third, the levels of support required by those who return to learning are often substantial, particularly at the beginning of their journey. Almost half (46 per cent) of further education teachers reported spending more than four hours per week supporting students outside the classroom; this ranged in nature from providing additional support for students to complete classroom work to helping individuals manage bigger issues related to budgets, housing and personal relationships that, unless resolved, can make learning difficult or impossible to achieve.
Fourth, colleges – the primary engines for lifelong learning – have come to be seen only as providers of qualifications for young people who have not experienced "academic" success in their schooling. The relationship between school and colleges is also poorly conceptualised and enacted, and this has contributed to the growing pay gap between schools and colleges. Forcing colleges into a vocational silo perpetuates the ideologically violent division between academic and vocational qualifications and, through that, consolidates structural inequality.
Centralised policy whims
Finally, incorporation has not achieved its intended aims. Rather than freeing colleges up to be independent and entrepreneurial, incorporation has shackled them to centralised policy whims. It has linked colleges to a national skills discourse that has since proved to undermine and overrule local ecologies and important relationships between colleges and their communities. Recent moves towards regional and municipal devolution may offer the opportunity to re-establish a locally coordinated further education system which prioritises the needs of communities. We firmly believe that new forms of democratic accountability and ownership that root colleges in their local communities are required.
The lessons for policymakers from this report are clear. Colleges should be repositioned centrally as the non-linear model of education that is required for the 21st century. Policy and funding need to acknowledge the important role colleges are playing by providing flexible and part-time routes not just as an additional part of a linear system. Colleges have to rebuild damaged learner identities as a precursor to providing courses and qualifications, but nowhere is this recognised in the current funding model.
Adult education is necessary for personal enrichment and growth throughout the life course. Compulsory education alone is not enough to meet the needs of the rapid changes in the world of work, now and in the coming years. As this report clearly shows, it is time for a structural, policy-led change.
Matt Waddup is the head of policy and campaigns at the University and College Union, and Vicky Duckworth is professor in education at Edge Hill University