Don't let young push old aside

11th March 2005 at 00:00
Just what is happening to the Government's lifelong learning strategy? We have a major demographic shift under way in the UK. We know that young people can fill only one in three jobs in the next decade. This is official, not some fuzzy estimate. From 2010, the impact of falling birth rates will have a sudden and inevitable impact on the labour market. At the same time, people born in the post-war baby boom will be hanging up their tools. In some industries, like engineering or further education, there is a concentration of skilled and experienced workers over 50. Replacing them will not be easy and requires effective strategies to get more women signed up, particularly from ethnic-minority communities. It involves persuading older people to stay in or re-enter the workforce. Yet, despite this, government policy concentrates more and more energy, and money, on the education of the young.

It is true that there will be a temporary bulge in the numbers of young people over 16 over the next four years. True, too, that the success of government policies sees more of them staying on at 16 - though far too many still opt out at 17. In addition, more young people are staying in school sixth forms. The result of these short-term pressures is that provision for many adults will get markedly worse over the next few years.

This is because the Learning and Skills Act in 2000 gave the Learning and Skills Council a statutory duty to ensure "sufficient" education for 16-19s, and a responsibility to secure "reasonable" provision for adults.

But what is reasonable? The answer is, whatever the LSC thinks is "reasonable" in the light of resources available.

A rise in young people's participation, therefore, comes at the cost of opportunities for adults. Those who choose to stay in school compound the problem because of the premium funds schools attract. All this is just about manageable with rising budgets. However, the tight budgets for FE from 2006 will lead to a decline in opportunities for adults. Tony Blair's recent proposal to create 100,000 new sixth-form places will make things worse. Who is going to fill them in five years time? How much unused capacity in schools will there be, then, when the country is crying out for resources to improve the skills of adults?

The National Employment Training Programme will also affect FE budgets. It will attract new money, but it will also lead to a shift of existing budgets from FE to employers. None of that money will come from budgets for young people.

It can be argued that employers will spend this money on adults. Yet the discussions surrounding the first four industry sector skills agreements suggest that all of them expect to concentrate their recruitment strategies on young people.

Look, too, at the research evidence over decades, which shows that employers concentrate cash for training on the most qualified of their workforce. In fact, a huge number of employers offer their staff no chance for training and development. The only sensible conclusion from all this is that there will need to be a cultural revolution in attitudes among employers, and in the regulatory framework in which they operate, before the bulk of older workers can rely on the workplace as a secure source of opportunities to re-engage with learning.

An ageing society needs its older people not just for work, but to keep the fabric of civil society vibrant. Older people vote more. They maintain the voluntary sector through their contributions. They undertake a large proportion of the caring for older and much younger relatives and friends.

And they have spent a lifetime paying taxes for education without having much opportunity to benefit themselves.

Over the life of the LSC there has been a welcome rising trend in older people's participation. That will inevitably reverse as "other education" for adults bears the brunt of the funding pressures on the LSC. More money is needed to overcome the short-term pressures from 2006. And we must get better at planning - the challenges of an ageing workforce have not suddenly arrived over the horizon. Most importantly, you cannot have a lifelong learning policy that focuses exclusively on the interests of the young.

Alan Tuckett is director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education

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