'Digital skills are crucial – but we need funding'

New digital skills courses are welcome - but funding and strategy are required to make them a success, says Stephen Evans

Stephen Evans

The government has announced new digital skills courses - but where is the extra funding?

Last year, the government announced that it would introduce a new entitlement to free digital skills learning for adults in England who need it, to sit alongside the existing entitlements to literacy and numeracy and on top of similar entitlements for some adults to access free level 2 and 3 qualifications.

At the Learning and Work Institute, we’ve been arguing for that for some time. Digital skills are increasingly vital to both finding and progressing at work, as well as active participation in society. Yet around 13 million people lack the most basic digital skills. The case for action is clear.

More on this: Adults to be offered free digital skills courses

Insight: 'Now is the time to give adults the right to free basic digital skills training'

Other news: 'Teaching staff need confidence in their digital skills'

New digital skills qualifications

The government has now confirmed more details of how it plans to put this entitlement into practice. Squeezed out just before Easter, this is an important development. The entitlement will be delivered through new "essential digital skills" qualifications and digital functional skills qualifications. These new qualifications will be developed in time to start provision in 2021.

So far, so sensible. There are, however, two fairly fundamental flaws that need to be addressed.

The first flaw is that this new entitlement is to be delivered from the existing adult education budget. One person’s new entitlement is another commissioner’s extra funding pressure. Without extra funding, this risks just being a zero-sum game – every extra person undertaking digital skills provision must mean a reduction in the numbers learning outside these legal skills entitlements.

This includes in areas where the adult education budget is being devolved. In the US this would be known as an unfunded mandate – federal government requiring the states to do something, but without the funding to do it. We’ve got lots of good imports from the US, including some great TV series, but this is one import we can do without.

Shortage of funding

Learning and Work Institute research showed that the UK was likely to fall down the international league tables for skills, including basic skills, by 2030. So it’s not like we’re powering ahead in other areas and can afford to reduce other learning opportunities to expand digital skills provision. Once again, this shows the need for increased investment in learning for adults. We’ve called for an extra £1.5 billion per year to make a dent in our shortfalls compared with other countries. The clock is ticking for the government spending review…

The second flaw is that creating an entitlement and new qualifications is not enough on its own. The examples of literacy and numeracy show that, despite 9 million adults lacking these skills, and the entitlement to free training, participation has fallen by one third in the past five years.

We’ve done lots of research with adults to understand how they take decisions about whether or not to learn. It shows a huge engagement challenge – the main reason given for not learning is not wanting to or not seeing the benefit. This requires national and local awareness-raising that demonstrates the benefits of learning digital and other skills to people’s lives.

Main skills and capabilities

The Learning and Work Institute’s Citizen’s Curriculum could help point the way. This looked at the main skills and capabilities needed for life and work in the 21st century, including digital, literacy, numeracy, health and financial capability and citizenship. It engaged people through trusted local groups, such as housing associations and local authorities, and then codesigned provision around these core capabilities with local people.

This holistic and codesigned process helped to deliver engagement and results, in one pilot in Rochdale saving £2.68 for local public services for every £1 invested. It’s what much of the best in adult and community learning does every day, and shows a way to deliver learning in an integrated way.

Perhaps that points to another role for local and combined authorities? That is, in developing and facilitating a local plan to join up provision so that people can see progression pathways and a web of opportunities to get involved in learning.

A new digital skills entitlement is a good thing. But adult learning as a whole needs effective funding and an overall strategy that puts engagement, provision and support together.

Stephen Evans is chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute

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