To boost lifelong learning, we need a national strategy

In light of review after review, it is important to keep the focus on the need for a lifelong learning strategy, writes Stephen Evans

Stephen Evans

Despite review after review, the must keep the pressure up for a lifelong learning strategy

Another week, another review. This time of the role of level 4 and 5 qualifications, described as the "missing middle" by another recent review (the Augar review).

This latest review sits alongside the introduction of T levels at level 3, and reviews of qualifications at level 3 and below. It follows the Sainsbury review and the Augar review. Meanwhile, the chancellor announced last autumn that the government would review the apprenticeship levy, Theresa May has recently promised another green paper on disability support, and we still await (18 months after it was initially expected) a consultation on the shared prosperity fund which will replace European social funds when the UK leaves the European Union.

Background: Government announces plans to rebadge level 4 and 5

More on this: Halfon: Create an adult education centre in every town

News: Augar review: Give colleges £1bn and freeze HE funding

Consultation and reviews

The Labour Party has a further consultation out on its plans for a National Education Service and has established a lifelong learning commission (of which I’m a member) to support its development.

It is worth saying at this point that it is a good idea to consult on things before doing them. Otherwise I’d probably be complaining that the government and political parties didn’t listen. Consultations and reviews can be a good way of making better policy and building consensus.

Our Employment and Skills Convention this week discussed all these planned changes, but I think identified three main problems. The first is that consultation should not be a substitute for action. I don’t think that’s the intention with most of the current batch of consultations. But the Spending Review, which is where most funding and policy decisions were expected to be taken, now looks less likely to happen as planned in the autumn (though it's still possible). As well as talking about things, you also need to do them, so we need to push for action to follow the consensus on the need for action.

This links to the second problem, which is that the government and ministers that launched all these reviews won’t be in place in a few weeks. We could end up starting again with a new prime minister and ministers. This risk is perhaps mitigated by the growing consensus around the need to do better on technical education (though that consensus might not translate into actual investment of course).

Unintended consequences

The third problem is that we lack an overall strategy for how these changes, reviews and consultations link together. Each references the others and says they will join things up. But we’re pretty light on what we’re trying to achieve overall, how we’ve prioritised, and why what we’re planning will make the biggest difference to our end goal. Policy making is riddled with unintended consequences – things that looked sensible on paper, but collapsed on first contact with the real world. Systems are more than a collection of individual policies.

What can we do? I think we should keep the pressure up for a lifelong learning strategy – government strategies can be annoying when they exist, particularly if they’re constantly chopped and changed, but you can miss them when they’re not there. For me, a strategy needs to underpin all the actions taking place across the system.

We have a chance to make progress: Education Committee chair Robert Halfon has argued for a National Skills Service and our convention heard from shadow education secretary Angela Rayner about Labour’s aim for its National Education Service to be joined up.

People and employers

We can also "hide the wiring" so that people and employers don’t see the spaghetti junction underneath it all. The best provision I see across the country focuses on people and employers as the ultimate focus of learning, skills and employment support and tries to fit policy and funding around this. Our policy and systems remain centralised by international standards, but local and mayoral combined authorities play an increasing role and the convention heard about the different approach being taken by them and by the Welsh government.

Our Festival of Learning winners are great examples too – coming into learning for a range of reasons, learning with a range of providers and different types of provision, and many of them going on to support others like them.

By no means do we live in a perfect world. But through joined-up policy and practice we can make a difference.

Stephen Evans is chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute

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