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'Debate about adult learning is great - but we need action and funding'

The growing range of ideas and debate around adult education is welcome – but the government must act, writes Stephen Evans

The government needs to put forward policy to expand adult learning to meet future skills needs, says Stephen Evans

Two reports and an announcement have captured my attention in the past week. The first report was from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. It says that lengthening working lives, coupled with ongoing global economic change, will mean an increased need for adults to learn and to improve and update their skills – the days of learning ending at the school gates have well and truly gone, if they existed at all.

The OECD’s main focus was on how ready countries’ adult learning and skills system are for this change. The bad, if not wholly unexpected, news is that the UK comes out average at best and is certainly not ready for the big changes ahead. In particular, the report argues that we need to focus on better and more sustainable funding, alignment of learning to the labour market and cutting inequalities in access to learning.

These are things many of us have been arguing for over a long time – it’s great to have further weight added to these calls, particularly ahead of the Augar review and spending review. (By the way, when it comes to sustainable funding, it’d be great to see the government’s consultation on the Shared Prosperity Fund that’s due to replace the European Social Fund when the UK leaves the EU – this has been due for more than a year, but there’s still no sign of it).


More on this: Adult education ‘requires improvement’

In depth: ‘Little time’ given to adult learners in Augar review

Opinion: 'Adult learning is addictive, but easy to avoid'


Learning accounts

It’s relatively easy to show there’s a problem – how do we solve it?

That’s where the second report, from the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), comes in. I’m delighted that it echoes the Learning and Work Institute’s longstanding calls for a new system of personal learning accounts. It argues that this could empower people and inspire them to think about learning. Like our proposed model of accounts, government money would be targeted to those on the lowest incomes and there would be wider efforts to engage and inspire adults into learning (it’s clear that accounts on their own are not enough).

I’m particularly interested by the CSJ’s call for learning accounts to follow the pensions model of auto-enrolment. Auto-enrolment is one of the great cross-party success stories of recent times. It has meant that many millions more people are saving for their retirement and with their employer contributing. Isn’t there a similar case to be made for lifelong learning? People are going to be working for longer and facing lots of change during that time.

The cost of adult learning

Advanced Learner Loans were meant to help people with the upfront cost of learning, but it’s clear that they’re not working as intended – learning covered by loans has fallen significantly and the loans budget is consistently under-allocated. So why not think about how people could save in advance for learning, as is commonly accepted for pensions? It could also help to answer that OECD call for a more sustainable source of funding for adult learning. This is an idea that, alongside greater public investment in learning, is well worth considering.

Lastly, to the announcement that caught my eye. This was the launch of Labour’s lifelong learning commission. I’m pleased our deputy director, Joyce Black, will be part of this commission. The basic idea behind Labour’s proposed National Education Service, of an integrated approach to lifelong learning, is a good one. The challenge which the commission will help to flesh out is how to do this. It stands alongside the Liberal Democrats' lifelong learning commission (of which I’m a member) and the government’s ongoing work on its planned National Retraining Scheme.

Of course, it’s easier to launch a commission or pilot than it is to fully fund a bigger ambition. It’s good that we’re having these debates across each of the main parties. The measure will be the policy proposals brought forward and the funding that backs them up.

For a long time, we’ve not been short of analysis on the shortfalls in adult learning policy and funding. It feels like now there’s a growing range of ideas and debate for how to build a better future.

Stephen Evans is chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute

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