London mayoral election: Why lifelong learning matters

Whoever the next mayor of London is, adult education must be a central priority, writes Phil Chamberlain

Phil Chamberlain

London mayor election 2021: The importance of adult education

Like those at numerous other London institutions, at City Lit we wait with interest as the London mayoral elections take place.   

In a recent article for Tes, David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, raised an interesting challenge to the sector about what they would say about FE if they had a five-minute audience with the prime minister. 

Well, why not five minutes with the new mayor of London, and why not about lifelong learning?

More from City Lit: 'My plea to the DfE: don't forget adult education'

David Hughes: Five minutes with Boris Johnson – what would you say?

Revealed: Sadiq Khan's 25-year plan for London skills

Personally, I would have four messages. 

London mayor election: Building on existing adult education plans 

The first would have to be about building on the best of the existing plans already developed. A difference in politics sometimes means automatic change, rather than embracing what might have gone before. 

In my view, the current London administration and GLA team have worked hard to develop a Skills for London Strategy that empowers many London providers and stakeholders to utilise funding available to realise the outcomes important to London – ensuring that clear accountability is in place, and the true value of lifelong learning is recognised. 

This has taken time, but it is time well spent as the strategy clearly recognises the broader benefits that lifelong learning brings to society. In fact, the current mayor talks “the importance of adult education in equipping Londoners with the relevant life, education and employment skills needed to support critical ‘life transitions”.

Lifelong learning gives people purpose

But, now, any new mayor will be looking carefully at the plans for post-Covid recovery and the economic and employment challenges we face. So the second message would be about not losing sight, when making these plans, of the fact that education and learning throughout life gives people purpose. It is a reason to get up and be excited. Sharing that experience with other people brings much-needed connection at a time when it is all too easy to become isolated.

This period of recovery will expose the needs of many people who are not ready for retraining or reskilling, and building confidence must be seen as essential, alongside qualifications and technical skills. This is particularly important for people who have a low level of formal skill, those experiencing health effects caused by the pandemic or those who have been in the same sector for decades and are unprepared for a career change. 

The link between lifelong learning, gainful employment and positive mental health is also long-established. We must support those who need to reskill to access employment and who have high levels of anxiety, depression and other forms of mental health challenges. By offering a safe and stimulating environment, City Lit is able to play a significant role in not only economic recovery but also societal recovery. 

A core purpose of all institutes for adult learning has always been to give people purpose through new experiences and knowledge and connecting them with other like-minded individuals. We believe that our mission has never been more important, as we are on the verge of an unemployment crisis in the UK. Our approach not only maintains roles within communities but also provides pastoral support, as well as meeting the educational needs of the students. 

When thinking about London, however, we cannot ignore the national picture. And the UK government has made some interesting announcements over the past year – culminating in the publication of its Skills for Jobs White Paper. While this sets out some robust recommendations and provides a good framework for future consultation and development, I believe it misses some vital issues – of particular relevance to lifelong learning and the post-Covid recovery. 

Understandably, this White Paper focusses on the role that lifelong learning will have on our economic recovery, specifically on vocational training and links to the employment crisis. However, it fails to recognise or even understand the definition of lifelong learning – even though it is in its title. The White Paper suggests that successful lifelong learning is shown to result in employment alone. 

Supporting broader skill development

Message three would be about the important role that education also plays in supporting those who require broader skill development – confidence, communication, critical thinking. All of these are hugely important in enhancing people’s ability to get a job and to progress once they are in one. In fact, it is a mistake not to talk about the links between education and mental wellbeing and the importance of community... especially in view of the pandemic.

Much is said in the White Paper – as it has with the recent government "skills accelerator" announcement – about the need to establish skills plans relevant to local areas. In London, much has already been done on this, with the development of a clear Skills for Londoners Strategy that encompasses a lot of what is already within the White Paper and more. This strategy needs to form the bedrock of any London mayoral candidate’s post-Covid recovery plan. And my hope is that there is a defined place for lifelong learning within all this – recognising the clear benefits of educating adults in terms of their productivity, wellbeing and relationships.

With that said, we should not forget the important lessons learned from the past 12 months – as the sector has made amazing efforts to transform delivery models, almost overnight, from a majority in-person course provision model to an effective online learning system. This must now be embraced to ensure that as well as thinking differently about how we serve our communities, we can respond in a new and exciting way – alongside our traditional in-college courses. Investment is required, and the mayor (and, indeed, central government) should consider how best to respond to the need for sufficient infrastructure support and investment.  

The impact of City Lit

The fourth message would be an uplifting one about the impact of my institution. City Lit fundamentally believes that everyone has a right to learn and improve themselves – and we work hard to inspire people’s passions, and help them realise their ambitions. We are unique – the ages of our students, the variety and nature of the courses we provide and our large, pan-London catchment area. We are proud to have an extensive course provision – covering visual arts; performing arts; humanities; languages; as well as considerable provision for people with learning disabilities, the deaf community and disenfranchised communities. 

City Lit, alongside all other institutions and providers, is a vital resource for all of London, and is valuable now, more than ever.

Bringing these sort of points to life through lived experiences and student or tutor stories is fundamental to any influencing or fundraising activity. Experience tells me that politicians need to see the value of activity through the eyes of who it benefits and the difference it makes to them. This would be far better than any powerful letter or policy submission.

Phil Chamberlain is the executive director for external engagement at City Lit 

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