Four years ago, at the age of 46, I sat in an apartment on the Lisbon coast on holiday wondering "what if?". I was wondering about whether or not I could have actually done my degree because, in reality, I dropped out of university first time around. A lack of confidence and a disadvantaged background possibly contributed to this, but could I now, in my late 40s, study for and complete a degree?
And so, I mapped out my own adult education plan and how I would achieve it. That’s not to say I didn’t think of all the challenges I would face as an adult learner. At the time I was working part-time for the Association of Colleges, so I felt I’d have the mental space to study again, but, even then, I had to think longer term as my degree would take me six years, part-time, to finish and things in my life could change significantly in that time – and they did. I ended up getting a full-time role at AoC in a completely new area of work. I’ve also been supporting my teenage son who was studying for GCSEs and is now doing A levels. And I’ve also had caring responsibilities for my lovely 81-year-old Mum after her recent dementia diagnosis – one which we all know will not get any better.
Need to know: Boris Johnson to announce Lifetime Skills Guarantee
So, into this mix add in someone who has not been in any kind of formal learning for over 25 years, who has had to relearn how to study, how to write academically, how to find the motivation to learn when you’re knackered after a manic workday and all you want to do is sit comatose in front of the telly with a cuppa. But that’s my adult learner story, and I have it so much better than most. There are hundreds of thousands of potential adult learners out there, all with different stories, different challenges and different personal circumstances.
The Lifetime Skills Guarantee: Flexibility is the key
It’s been a long time coming and something the sector has wanted for quite a while, but, at the end of this week, a funded adult level 3 offer will roll out as part of the Lifetime Skills Guarantee, funded from the National Skills Fund. Part of the government’s commitment to "build back better" and very much embedded in the recent FE White Paper, the new offer will allow adults to take a first full level 3 qualification in high demand skills areas on a selective list. For colleges this presents a fantastic opportunity to support adult learners to upskill and increase their technical and employability skills and to support employers in their local area by creating a skilled workforce to support economic recovery, which will be crucial in a post-Covid world.
We are especially pleased to see that our recommendation of subject premium increases has been implemented, something we’d done research on last year, given the lack of adult funding rate increases over the past decade. We have also welcomed the great work Jisc has done with us to publish a reading list webpage for the level 3 offer with awarding organisations and publishers providing information about online learning resource content.
Whilst I have been heavily involved in AoC’s thinking on the level 3 offer to adults, we have been keen that officials consider the human element to this offer. Put yourself in the shoes of the adult learner and understand that adult learners, above all, need flexibility. Whilst research shows that a large qualification brings the best return in terms of wage gains, it is not often practical for most adults to undertake this in one go, so it will be important to see whether this focus on full qualifications poses any barriers to participation as the rollout progresses and whether a modular or unitised approach should be explored to ensure a greater take up of the funded offer, creating a truly flexible and accessible adult offer. There are questions to be asked around this, such as how would we operationalise modularity or unitisation in the short and medium term without adding in additional complexity? And how could we make sure that it aligns with the qualifications landscape now and in the future?
Equally important, in our view, is that the other potential barrier will be the inability to claim Universal Credit whilst accessing this funding offer for those currently out of work. This is likely to put unemployed adults off taking up this fantastic training offer, as they still need to support themselves and their families. We’ll wait and see.
Whether in work or not, adults don’t have an infinite amount of time available to invest in upskilling and adult learning, even if it is funded. Adults have other pressures on their time including caring for elderly relatives and their own children. Many haven’t done any kind of learning since leaving school at 16. Returning to learning as an adult can be a scary thing. I should know – the struggle is real, and you need to dig deep for motivation and self-belief after a long day at work or when you’ve had to deal with another stressful call with your mother.
For the AoC, the other consideration is the fact that a first level 3 is a fantastic offer, but its reach isn’t far enough. It doesn’t take into account those who might have done A levels or a level 3 vocational qualification many years ago, have recently been made redundant or where their job is at risk perhaps due to Covid-19 or automation. We really need to be allowing people to take a subsequent level 3 qualification in a high demand skills area if their job has gone or is at risk. Otherwise, we are failing a whole swathe of the population who might really benefit from this wonderful opportunity.
Marguerite Hogg is policy development adviser at the Association of Colleges. She tweets @MargueriteHogg.