Adult learning: Future of the sector report's authors think they know a better way

18th September 2009 at 01:00
The authors of the report from a pound;1m inquiry into the future of the sector think they know a better way

Original paper headline: A case for adult learning in all shapes and sizes

The more society ages, the more our education system is biased towards the young.

Somewhere in Britain a person has been born who will live to the age of 120. But if nothing changes in the way we approach lifelong learning, the chances are that she will have received little education and training for nearly 80 per cent of her life.

That is the message from Learning Through Life, the report from the pound;1 million, two-year Inquiry into the Future for Lifelong Learning: the UK's public and private sectors have ignored a sweeping demographic change and funded education as though it is something only for the young.

The figures are stark. The inquiry report's authors, led by Tom Schuller, former head of the centre for educational research and innovation at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), calculated that a total of about pound;55 billion is spent each year on education and training for over-18s.

But that money is front-loaded to an enormous degree: while under-25s can expect to receive training worth more than pound;8,000 a year on average, between 25 and 50 that sum falls to pound;283. At 50, spending drops to pound;86 per person, and then at 75 it falls further to just pound;60.

Mr Schuller said one of the reasons spending is so biased towards the young is that Britain is in denial about its ageing population: "Many people don't want to think about the fact that we are all getting older. There's something in our collective psychology that means we don't want to think about the demographics of an ageing population."

But the other reasons for the failure to give education in later life its due are institutional and political. It has been unclear where the political responsibility for lifelong learning lies, he said. It cuts across many different departments and is too often overtaken by other political imperatives.

Among the inquiry report's recommendations is for a single government department to be responsible for lifelong learning and ensuring co- ordination and collaboration, along with a new body to oversee its work - either a parliamentary committee or part of the National Audit Office, for example.

To begin to redress the balance of funding, the inquiry proposes a relatively modest change. At today's level of spending, it would represent an extra pound;3.2 billion for over-25s. That would mean the average spend for 25 to 50-year-olds could rise to pound;380, with a total spend on this age group of pound;8.2 billion. The 50 to 75-year-old age group would receive a total of pound;2.2 billion, or pound;135 per person. And for the over-75s, proposed spending would almost double to an equivalent of pound;550 million, or pound;116 per person.

"You can call it modest, but it is something that will definitely make a real difference. We think this is a reasonable degree of adjustment over the next decade," Mr Schuller said.

The commissioners concede that even a small shift in the balance of funding can make the public and politicians nervous about where the money will come from, and whether it will result in downgrading another area of education.

As Alan Tuckett, director of Niace, the adult education body which commissioned the report, said: "It's difficult to make people think about this without worrying that you're going to take money away from children."

But the authors are convinced that the funding for compulsory education and students progressing on to higher education need not be affected.

That is partly because the numbers of young people are declining, so per capita spending can be maintained with a slightly smaller share of the funds.

But, as FE Focus revealed last week, the inquiry also believes that the potential savings of investing in lifelong learning are big enough to help it pay its own way. It estimates that savings of hundreds of millions are possible through improved mental health, greater independence of the elderly and reduced reoffending among prisoners, even on conservative calculations.

Mr Schuller concedes that the argument is not new, and that the Treasury can be reluctant to spend now for what it may see as uncertain rewards in the future.

Funding is not the inquiry's only diagnosis of failings in the lifelong learning system, however. Problems begin with schooling, where children too often leave without basic skills or qualifications and where they are not prepared for a lifetime of learning. Teacher training should include a component on lifelong learning to help them instil a desire for learning, the inquiry recommends.

It also suggests that the talk of the UK moving to a high-skill economy is more rhetoric than reality, and that the "simplistic" model of demand-led funding has ignored the fact that workplaces do not always encourage the full use of skills.

Meanwhile, the system is unintelligible to users, over-centralised and poorly understood even by experts: the inquiry said there simply is not enough knowledge to make the decisions necessary for greater fairness and effectiveness, and part of its prescription is for greater research to produce a more "intelligent system".

It praised the new "Learning Revolution" support for grassroots adult education initiatives as the way to create a more accessible, comprehensible system. But it also said that further education colleges should be "the institutional backbone" of lifelong learning.

"One of the dangerous current trends is the narrowing of this range, with a sharp shift towards youth," the report said. It said colleges are overwhelmingly the largest local provider of learning, and should strive to imitate the US concept of "an affordable college education for all". The default local partnership could be a local college and a public library, the inquiry proposed. Diversity should be encouraged.

The inquiry's prescription also includes a series of entitlements which it envisages being provided via learning accounts. Everyone should have the legal right to free basic skills education, it proposes.

There should be a "financial entitlement" - meaning it would be restricted by available funds - for the minimum standard of qualification to participate in the modern economy - currently level two or GCSE equivalent but heading towards level three.

And lastly, there should be a "good practice" entitlement to time off work for learning - something which professional and trade bodies would be encouraged to require as part of their industry standards, just as FE lecturers are required to carry out continuous professional development.

Central to the vision is a flexible, transferable credit system which would allow students to study at their own pace, as well as transfer between further and higher education and between institutions.

The inquiry envisages a future where the distinction between full-time and part-time study disappears, as students take on only as much study at a time as fits into their lifestyle, their need to work and other commitments.

It would represent a dramatic shift in the UK's education ethos. "At the moment, 90 per cent of student support is for full-time undergraduates in HE and only 10 per cent for part-time students," Mr Schuller said.

Removing the barrier of commitment to full-time study is likely to create a shift in favour of older students in itself, since they could combine learning with work or family commitments.

Underpinning all these changes, however, is the question of funding, which is at the heart of the report's conclusions.

In one sense, the timing could not be worse. It comes against a backdrop of record public debt, fears of cuts across all public services, and at a time when further education spending as a whole is being slashed by pound;240 million for 2010-11.

Mr Schuller said he believes the case the inquiry has made deserves a hearing, however. "We have put our marker down in a different way from how it has been done before - more comprehensive and I hope more complete."

The inquiry's report is intended to set the agenda for debate about lifelong learning for the next 10 or 15 years. By then, of course, Britain's population will be even older.

At what point will redressing the balance of funding in favour of older learners cease to be a choice and become an urgent necessity?

A path to the future

Among the report's recommendations:

  • Use a four-stage model for lifelong learning age groups: 18-25, 25-50, 50- 75, and 75+
  • Rebalance the funding to give the equivalent of pound;3.2 billion to post-25 education at today's level of spending
  • Enhance training and education for 50 to 75-year-olds, raising it from 2.5 per cent to 4 per cent of total spending - up to an pound;800 million increase at today's rate of funding
  • Make 75 the standard end of working age and create an "authentic educational offer" for later life
  • Create a new set of entitlements: a legal right to free literacy and numeracy training at all ages, a right to a free minimum qualification for the modern economy where it is affordable, and encourage industry to adopt entitlements to learning leave as part of their professional standards
  • Provide entitlements through learning accounts
  • Introduce a transferable credit system, allowing learning at students' own pace and a change to career track
  • Provide a "citizen's curriculum", giving adults information about the digital world, health, finance, and civic life
  • Give local authorities a strategic role in planning lifelong learning
  • Make one government department the lead for cross-departmental issues
  • Provide birthday bonuses every decade to top up students' learning accounts
  • Offer prisoners learning credits on their release to help them resettle.

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