It’s usually easier to analyse a problem than to solve it – and so I’m pleased to be a member of the Labour Party’s Lifelong Learning Commission, which is trying to come up with some answers.
Britain can feel like a deeply unfair place. The top professions are dominated by people who attended private schools, incomes for low to middle earners are lower than 10 years ago, and new data shows that one in three children are growing up in relative poverty.
This is made particularly stark by the weakness in economic growth by historical standards since 2008, limiting the scope for pay rises, increases in public spending and tax cuts.
Our poor skills base is a key reason for this twin failure of fairness and growth. We languish in the bottom half of the international league tables, with some 9 million adults having low literacy or numeracy.
This is both an economic and social crisis, limiting people’s opportunities and holding back growth. Our research shows that progress in improving skills in the UK has stalled. Other countries continue to improve, and so we’re set to fall even further down the international league tables by 2030.
Adult education boosts health and wellbeing
In addition, while learning can help with jobs and careers, it has so many other benefits. Our Festival of Learning award winners show the difference that learning can make to people’s health and wellbeing, engagement in their communities, and so much more. The phrases I hear most often from adult learners are about lights being switched on and doors opened.
Given this, it clearly makes sense to invest in learning for adults. Except we’re not. The adult education budget has been cut almost in half since 2010 and adults’ participation in learning is at its lowest level since the Learning and Work Institute began measuring it 20 years ago.
Labour’s big idea is a National Education Service – mirroring the principles of the National Health Service by making lifelong learning free at the point of use and building an integrated service that’s easy for people to access.
I think there are three key elements to the Lifelong Learning Commission’s interim report. The first is investment – the Learning and Work Institute has argued for an extra £1.5 billion per year for the next decade to return the number of adults taking part in learning back to 2010 levels and halt the UK’s decline compared with other countries.
Entitlement to learning
The second element is to inspire adults to learn. Our research shows that the main reason adults don’t take part in learning is that they don’t want to or don’t see the need. This has been worsened by government funding cuts – switching from free learning for some adults to charging fees has led to a one-third fall in such learning.
That’s why the commission will explore the idea of an entitlement to lifelong learning, and how to join up lifelong learning with other public services. For example, Rochdale Council engaged other public services in its community learning programme. The result was increased participation in learning, but also wider benefits as people engaged in preventative support like public health, reducing demand for emergency services. We need this sort of approach to be business as usual rather than the exception that proves the rule.
The third element is the need for a lifelong learning strategy. In its absence, individual policy decisions are too often like driving and deciding whether to turn left or right without knowing where you want to get to.
A lifelong learning strategy should be based on long-term stability and cooperation. However, policy has often exacerbated silos and fragmentation; new policies are layered on top of old ones. Further education is an over-reformed policy area, beset by constant chop and change. Too often, this means central government needs to be top of the list for colleges and providers to keep happy, rather than learners. I’m pleased the commission is looking at longer-term funding and stable policy to allow schools, colleges, providers, universities and others to work together rather than compete – a people-first approach.
The interminable debate over Brexit has crowded everything else out. To make sure people get a fair chance in life and improve prosperity and growth, we need to turbocharge lifelong learning. A National Education Service has real potential to help do this. That would benefit us all.
Stephen Evans is chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute