When my mother arrived in the UK from Guyana with nothing, evening courses at our local college meant that she could secure a job at Haringey Council and earn a salary to support our family. So it is with first-hand knowledge of how important adult education is that I mourn the loss of night schools across our communities, denying working people the opportunities to learn the skills they need to get a reliable job on a good wage.
But the political classes of Westminster and Whitehall are slowly waking up to the fact that young people don’t all follow a neat linear trajectory from A levels to a Russell Group university, and realising that education cannot – and must not – finish at the age of 18 or 21.
While the new “approach” to lifelong learning promised in last year’s Post-16 Skills Plan failed to materialise, the chancellor, Philip Hammond, set aside £40 million for lifelong learning pilots in his Budget last month. The recently published industrial strategy Green Paper also promised to test “new approaches” to lifelong learning.
A warning worth heeding
During his Budget speech, the chancellor pledged to end for good the “lingering doubt about the parity of esteem” between technical and academic education. But such a significant change can’t be achieved through considering how best to encourage lifelong learning or trialling the use of “contact movements” to promote retraining opportunities.
As I said in the Budget debate, we need a rescue package to bring back night schools and revive adult education, not a fund of £40 million. During a debate that I secured on adult education and night schools back in January, the apprenticeships and skills minister, Robert Halfon, recognised the importance of adult education, but the situation on the ground is bleak – and we need far more than warm words and pilot schemes from this government.
We have seen 40 per cent cuts to the adult skills budget since 2010, and the Association of Colleges has warned that adult education could disappear entirely by 2020. It is a warning that should be taken seriously, given that the total number of adult learners is falling by more than 10 per cent a year and the number of adults gaining a level 4 qualification or above has fallen by 75 per cent in just two years.
We need a rescue package to bring back night schools and revive adult education, not a fund of £40 million
All the while, adult education has barely even been mentioned on the floor of the House of Commons, as night schools and lifelong learning institutions that once served as community hubs and engines of social mobility have silently faded from view.
This should not be a party political issue. It is underinvestment and political neglect on the parts of successive governments that has led us to this point, and the economic imperative is blindingly obvious: a huge skills gap and long-standing low productivity holding our economy back, together with a changing economic model in which people will be working longer, changing careers more frequently and require retraining to keep up with the demands of the modern economy.
This is not just about economics, growth and productivity figures, though. What strikes me most whenever I visit adult education providers is that the benefits of lifelong learning go far beyond equipping people with skills for the workplace. Adult education – at any level and at all stages of life – gives thousands of people the confidence they need to flourish, and has a huge impact on physical and mental health and wellbeing.
None of this is new. But Brexit – and a potentially hard Brexit at that – means adult learning should be an urgent national priority. The next government must rise to the challenge. Skills shortages already account for almost a quarter of all vacancies and more than two-thirds of UK firms are worried that they won’t be able to find enough people with the requisite skills to fill future job openings.
A search for new skills
This is all before the impact of any departure from the single market begins to bite and businesses will no longer be able to recruit from the continent to plug skills gaps. If the Brexiteers are determined to pull us out of the single market while avoiding economic catastrophe, then they will need to do much more to reskill and retrain our own people to take up these jobs – and fast.
Politicians from all political parties have been quick to argue that last year’s vote for Brexit was caused by whole swathes of our country, particularly in seaside towns and post-industrial areas, feeling “left behind”. So any proper response to Brexit has got to get to grips with how working class people trapped in low-income, dead-end jobs with children and care responsibilities can gain new skills, access growth industries in our economy, upgrade their jobs and ultimately build a better life for their families. In my experience, that is what “social mobility” and “life chances” means for ordinary people outside of the Westminster bubble.
We need to be bold – certainly much bolder than a £40 million pilot scheme and £140 million in advanced learner loans. We need a proper, cross-departmental strategy for adult education in Whitehall and we need proper provision of night schools, part-time courses and lifelong learning in our communities.
David Lammy is the MP for Tottenham, and former higher education and skills minister. He tweets @davidlammy