The Tes FE Awards, held last week, and the Festival of Learning are great celebrations of learning. By showing the real impact of acquiring knowledge and skills, such events can also help us make the case for further education to meet the big challenges we face today.
For the labour market, it’s the best of times and the worst of times. The employment rate is at a record high and unemployment at a record low. In part, this reflects strong growth in employment for older people, partly related to the rising state pension age.
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Background: ‘No more excuses: it's time to invest in skills’
Scope to increase employment
However, look behind this and there’s more going on. First, employment is still much lower for some demographic groups and areas of the country. Other countries have employment rates higher than ours. Taken together, this suggests scope to increase employment still further.
But I want to focus on the quality of work and living standards. The growth in employment has predominantly been in full-time jobs. However, this does not mean they are high-quality jobs or that they pay people enough to get by.
This week, new data is expected to show a rise in the number of households with below-average income. This would be the reversal of a long-term trend of falls and then stability in these numbers. The Resolution Foundation projects that we could now be at the start of a longer-term rise, including increasing numbers of children living in poverty.
Growing up in poverty
This should give us all pause for thought. Living in poverty when growing up can have a permanent impact on young people’s life chances. School, college and learning-provider staff see this impact every day.
So, the first thing we should do is to talk about this rise and the impact it has. The second is to talk about how we can change it. This raises questions about Universal Credit and other in-work and out-of-work benefits. Frozen for three years, by how much should such benefits rise in future years?
The chancellor has also commissioned a review to look at how the minimum wage can affect productivity and employment, to help decide how much it should rise by after 2020.
This is where the link to learning and skills comes in. Ultimately, we can only have higher wages if productivity is higher. Though there’s an interesting debate about whether higher productivity will lead to higher wages or whether we need to increase wages first in order to increase productivity (more of that on another occasion, perhaps).
Either way, we know that high-quality learning and skills can help to increase productivity and wages. So, the likely rise in low-income households and child poverty, and the desire to further increase the minimum wage are yet more reasons to invest in learning and skills.
I hope that we can add this to our case for the Spending Review and for local government, but also for employers, too – we need them to invest in learning and also to effectively utilise the skills of the workforce.
Investment is needed
Learning and skills require higher public investment and effective policy, but they need individuals to engage and employers to invest as well.
That’s why it’s important to make this more than an abstract case in principle. The Treasury will want assurance that any investment in learning and skills will deliver all these benefits to our economy and society. That means being ruthless in ensuring impact and value for money.
And people and politicians will also want to see what difference this would make in practice. That’s where things like the Festival of Learning and the Tes FE Awards, held last week, can help. Collectively, we have an array of inspirational examples of the impact of learning. Part of our challenge is to put this together with the economic case and translate it across to the political issues of the day, like any sustained rises in the number of households with below-average income.
This sector makes a difference every day. We need to make the analytical case for that but also show the practical difference that learning makes to people’s lives.
Stephen Evans is chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute