The government should publish an adult education strategy and commit to supporting lifelong learning, a group of 61 MPs has urged in an open letter.
The signatories, including shadow education secretary Angela Rayner and shadow skills minister Gordon Marsden, warn apprenticeships and skills minister Robert Halfon of a “gaping skills gap” holding back the economy.
With a skills gap “about to get a lot worse if we leave the single market”, the government should publish a strategy and invest in lifelong learning, according to the letter. It also calls on ministers to bring back "night schools" and evening classes for adults, after David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, raised the issue in an adjournment debate on Friday.
The letter points out that the adult skills budget has been cut by more than 40 per cent in real terms since 2010.
Minister urged to come up with a national strategy
The letter calls upon Mr Halfon to “come up with a national strategy that works across departments in recognition of the huge range of beneficial outcomes that adult education has for individuals, our economy and society in general – not least in terms of employability and helping people return to work, but also in terms of tackling mental ill health and social exclusion”.
It adds: “We recognise that the adult education budget has been frozen in cash terms, yet this will mean a cut in real terms and comes on the back of 40 per cent cuts to the adult skills budget between 2010 and 2015, as well as 57 per cent cuts in spending on the non-apprenticeships aspects of this budget. The number of adult learners fell by 10.8 per cent in just a single year between 2014 and 2015, and the number of adults achieving level 4 awards of above has fallen to just 3,900 – a staggering 75 per cent fall in just two years.”
It concludes that when education and skills provision does not keep up with a changing economy and jobs market, inequalities are exacerbated, “and it is those at the bottom who lose out most”. “We believe that all adults must have access to flexible, affordable and accessible education and training that will equip them for the modern jobs market and takes into account other commitments adults have as employees, parents and carers.”
'Bring back night schools'
Mr Lammy said: “In the context of Brexit and a skills gap that will get much worse if we leave the single market, this is now an issue that requires urgent attention. For far too long Parliament and Whitehall have been obsessed with young people getting into university or undertaking apprenticeships but education doesn’t end at 18 or 21. We need investment and we need a strategy for adult education and lifelong learning to respond to the challenges of a modern economy and a job market in which people will need to learn new skills throughout their working lives.”
Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner added: “As our economy and labour market change in the coming years, and the idea of having a job for life continues to become a thing of the past, the importance of adult education and lifelong learning will only increase. “
A Department for Education spokesperson said that the "total spending power" of the FE sector will be £3.4 billion by 2019-20, a "cash terms increase of 40 per cent compared with 2015-16".
“Education doesn’t stop when you leave school," the spokerperson added. "Adult education is a vital part of this Government’s aim to empower everyone in our society to succeed and create the skilled workforce we need. Last year, nearly 400,000 people over the age of 19 started an apprenticeship, getting the chance to earn while they learn.
“Measures like the new apprenticeship levy and advanced learner loans means there is more funding to support adults in further education than at any time in England’s history. The total spending power of the further education sector to support adult participation will be £3.4bn by 2019-20, this is a cash terms increase of 40% compared with 2015-16.
“And we’re going further by conducting a review into gaps in support for lifetime learning so more adults get the chance to climb the ladder of opportunity to secure quality jobs.”