'Let’s prove adult learning boosts the economy'

8th June 2018 at 00:00
With a tough spending review on the horizon, former Treasury civil servant Stephen Evans says evidence is the key to unlocking the chancellor’s coffers

It is no exaggeration to say we face a crisis in living standards and productivity. One in five workers is paid less than the living wage. Productivity – the amount each worker produces and the long-term driver of prosperity – is one-third lower than in France, Germany and the US, and has flatlined over the past 10 years. The Bank of England, in its own understated way, has shown this to be the worst decade for productivity growth since the late 1700s. Real wages haven’t gone up this slowly since the Napoleonic Wars.

There are no silver bullets in public policy. But so wide and varied are the benefits of learning that I’ve argued it should be the golden thread running through everything the government does. Nowhere is this more true than for living standards and productivity.

We face an existential crisis: without productivity growth, we cannot have ongoing rises in living standards or extra investment in public services in the long run. These are linked challenges – and learning and skills have an important role to play.

To see why, look at the Skills Escalator project. To help tackle low pay, West London’s boroughs contacted their in-work housing benefit claimants and offered them help to earn more money. Those who came forward got access to a personal adviser, who talked through their situation and goals, and agreed an action plan with them. This was supported by employer links for work placements, referrals to local provision and a small budget to spend on other support, with English for speakers of other languages proving particularly popular.

An evaluation by the Learning and Work Institute, where I am chief executive, found that one-third of the more than 350 people who took part in the project enrolled in learning. Roughly one in five participants increased their earnings – by £147 per month – compared with a similar matched group. Often this was achieved by helping people to stay in employment rather than by increasing their hourly earnings.

It is important to note, though, that the initiative has given an insight rather than the answer. More research is needed in this area.

Perhaps you would expect me to say so, given that research is one of the things we do. But to see why it matters, look at the number of similar programmes taking place up and down the country – some focused on individuals, others on employers, and more still on a combination of the two. For example, we’re also evaluating a pilot in Glasgow in which the council is developing plans with social care providers focused on the needs of the organisation, and including investment in, and effective use of, people’s skills.

But often different projects don’t know about each other; people have told us they would welcome a space to share knowledge about what works (and what doesn’t).

Filling knowledge gaps

This is why the Learning and Work Institute is setting up Better Work London with the support of Trust for London. The network will bring together the evidence base, give people a chance to share their experiences and look at how we can fill the gaps in what we know. Focused on London, it will draw in experience from around the country.

But it’s just a start. We know that apprenticeships, at their best, are about helping people build their careers, as well as allowing employers to meet their skill needs. That’s what T levels are intended to do, too. And so much learning and skills provision also plays this role – among other things helping people to achieve their ambitions and employers to meet their needs.

With a tough spending review coming up next year – austerity hasn’t gone away – this is one of the many cases we need to be making for investment in learning and skills for adults. As a former Treasury civil servant, I know it’s among the more powerful ones to make, showing how the learning and skills sector can help to address the challenges of our times.

The Better Work London network is one way in which we’re hoping to help inform practice and shape policy. We need to work together to build the evidence – and continue to make the case for investment in learning and skills.

Stephen Evans is chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute. For more information about Better Work London, see bit.ly/BetterWorkLondon

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