Adult education ‘requires improvement’

The adult learning system is not fit for the future, but building blocks for improvement are in place, says David Hughes

Adult education needs to be transformed, says Association of Colleges chief executive David Hughes

Last week’s Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development report – Getting Skills Right: Future-Ready Adult Learning Systemscompared adult learning systems across OECD countries and assessed how well they are facing up to future skills challenges.

Report after report in recent years has been telling us that technological change, globalisation, demography and changing attitudes are all impacting on work and on the skills people need to be successful in the labour market.

For the UK, Brexit has heightened interest in how our own labour market operates and brought increasing recognition that an over-reliance on skilled and semi-skilled migrant labour is a big risk.

At the Work Foundation launch of the report, I was asked to say whether the UK adult learning system is ready for all this change. My short answer was an emphatic "no". Putting aside the fact that we have four different approaches to adult learning in the UK, there are five headline reasons why I’d claim that we fall far short of what is needed now, let alone for the future.


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If Ofsted was making a judgement, adult learning would be "requires improvement" at best, with the pressure on to improve governance, provide stronger leadership and address questions of intention, implementation and impact.

Targeting adult education

Firstly, the report is clear that every OECD country can and must do better in improving the future readiness of their adult learning systems.

With only two in five adults participating in education and training in any given year and the most disadvantaged least likely to train, there is clearly no room for complacency. Adults with low skills levels who are most at risk of losing out from technological change are three times less likely to undertake training than the high-skilled (20 per cent versus 58 per cent). With the UK judged to be below average, our challenge is enormous, and urgent attention is clearly required.

Secondly, our system (in England) has been hit by big reductions in funding by the government as well as reductions in training investment by employers. College funding is 30 per cent less in real terms than it was a decade ago, and adult investment has been decimated.

Our analysis shows that numbers of enrolments for adult learning in key sectors of the economy such as construction or health and social care have reduced by two-thirds in the past 10 years. The result of this and the ongoing underinvestment in young people is that educational achievement in England is still too dependent on parents’ educational achievement, class and income. Overall, we have insufficient investment in education and skills from government, employers and people themselves.

More funding needed

My third reason comes from looking at who is participating and who isn’t. The report shows that around half of adults don’t participate in education and training because they say that they don’t want to.

That is particularly worrying because we know that those achieving to higher levels in initial education are much more likely to be lifelong learners, meaning that lower achievers are more likely to say that they don’t need training or learning.

Unfortunately, it is this group that is more vulnerable in the labour market, particularly as they are most likely to struggle with new technologies.

Their work and life chances will go backwards unless we find ways to motivate and stimulate them and probably overcome the big psychological barrier about whether learning will be worth it, whether they are able to succeed in learning and whether they have the time and resources to fit it in.

My fourth reason goes to the heart of the purpose of our adult learning system and asks what type of learning is most important and most effective.

The OECD report recommends that adult learning content should “more strongly align with the skill needs of the labour market”, which, on the face of it, is fine. In practice, though, this simple idea hides great complexity.

With the “fourth industrial revolution” and the rapid rate of change in the labour market, we should not be trying to predict precise job-specific skills but educate and train people to have agency and confidence in the labour market.

To achieve that, we need to focus more broadly on helping people to develop their resilience, curiosity, creativity, problem-solving, team-working and communications skills.

National and local leadership

Fifthly, we have a very fragmented post-18 system. Policy on apprenticeships, technical skills, retraining, adult education and higher education is all too separate at national level and very difficult to bring together locally. Skills devolution is very partial and will not help with that joining up.

What we need is to strengthen governance mechanisms “to improve vertical and horizontal coordination between different actors involved in the adult learning system”. Nationally, we need more coherence. Locally, too, we need to recognise and support more distinctive roles for colleges, universities and other providers, with a stronger emphasis on collaboration and specialisation rather than competition.

Our adult learning system is not fit for the future, but the building blocks are in place, colleges are ready to use increased investment to deliver more and the climate is ready for a more collaborative approach.

We just need national and local leadership to make it happen. That’s a great opportunity for this government with the Augar review, the spending review and Brexit all imminent. I’m looking forward to helping.

David Hughes is the chief executive of the Association of Colleges

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