After Lee Hughes left school with no qualifications, his life went into a downward spiral, which culminated in him ending up homeless and addicted to heroin. Following the birth of his son and a breakdown in his relationship, Hughes decided enough was enough and took up a steady job in a call centre. But he kept getting into trouble for reading history books when he should have been working.
One day, Hughes’ manager said she’d had enough. She gave him an ultimatum: if he did not enrol at college, she would sack him. The next day, he went to Northern College in Barnsley and enrolled on an access to higher education course. He hasn’t looked back: after gaining a degree in modern history, he is now studying for a master’s in history at Sheffield Hallam University, specialising in pan-Africanism and community in 1940s Manchester.
“As I went through my twenties, that niggling feeling that I had missed a massive opportunity [at school] was getting stronger and stronger,” Hughes says.
But when he stepped through the college’s doors, that all changed: “I was told I belonged here. For my first 29 years, I felt like an outsider, so to be told ‘You’re coming home’ – it was really powerful.”
Hughes’ story illustrates the importance of lifelong learning opportunities. But learning as an adult does not just happen in college classrooms: it could include anything from a book club or a fitness class to evening classes in French or watching tutorials on YouTube.
With government policy increasingly focused on preparation for employment, discovering what wider learning opportunities are available is notoriously difficult. This is where the Learning and Work Institute’s annual adult participation survey comes in.
Each year, a representative sample of 5,000 adults is provided with the following definition of learning, designed to capture the full range of formal and informal approaches: “Learning can mean practising, studying or reading about something. It can also mean being taught, instructed or coached. This is so you can develop skills, knowledge, abilities or understanding of something. Learning can also be called education or training. You can do it regularly (each day or month) or you can do it for a short period of time.”
The respondents are then asked when they last participated in learning; be it full-time or part-time, at home or at college, and irrespective of whether they received a qualification at the end of it.
When the survey was first carried out by the institute’s predecessor, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (Niace), it was 1996, the year when the Spice Girls released their debut single, Wannabe, England’s footballers reached the semi-finals of the Euros, and John Major was prime minister – in the penultimate year of an 18-year period of Conservative Party rule.
The survey has been carried out 18 times in the 22 years since then, and has charted a seismic two decades in adult skills policy, encompassing New Labour’s rise and fall, the coalition, and majority and minority Tory governments. Since 1997, no fewer than 38 secretaries of state have had an input in forming skills policy in England.
‘Storing up problems’
Now, for the first time, the Learning and Work Institute has opened up the full historic data from those surveys. And the findings give cause for concern: they reveal a steady decline from the high point of 2001, when 46 per cent of respondents reported taking part in some form of learning, to a record low of just 36 per cent last year.
“Participation in learning is falling when it needs to be rising,” says the institute’s chief executive, Stephen Evans. “We definitely need to invest more in learning. But we also need to continue to find new ways to engage people in learning and allow them to learn more flexibly, to fit around life and work. If we don’t, we’re storing up problems for our economy. Given our ageing population and rapid economic change, people will need to constantly learn and adapt.”
One man who has watched the fortunes of adult education more closely than any other is Sir Alan Tuckett, professor of education at the University of Wolverhampton and chief executive of Niace from 1988 to 2011. In this role, Tuckett saw first-hand how the funding and policy landscape around adult skills shifted over two decades.
“We’re not in a good place – we’re going in the opposite direction to where we should be going,” he says.
While the figures have, by and large, remaining “astonishingly stable” over the two decades of surveys, the drop in the most recent results gives serious cause for concern, Tuckett says: “It is significant that the figure this year is down to the level that it is – it is lower than it ever has been. I think we have an extraordinary situation where there has never been a better case for adult learning.”
To back this up, he cites skills shortages that could result from reduced immigration after Brexit, as well as changes to the labour market from increased automation.
“If you look at what has happened over 15 years to public funding in further education,” Tuckett continues, “there has been a drop of 2 million opportunities for adult learning. Colleges have lost a quarter of their funding, universities have lost half of their adult part-time students. Employers are training fewer people than they were before the 2008 economic crash. Every other country looked at the crash and thought, ‘Let’s teach more people.’ It’s something of a perfect storm.”
This year, through its annual education report, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) decided to shine a light on the state of funding in the FE sector. The report highlights the fact that, between 2009 and 2017, total spending on adult education fell by almost 50 per cent in real terms.
Luke Sibieta, the report’s author, says this was mainly driven by a decline in the number of adult learners taking courses at level 2 or below. He adds: “At the same time, an increasing share of adult education spending is focused on apprenticeships rather than traditional classroom learning. Apprenticeships now make up more than one-third of all adult learners.”
Looking further back, figures show that adult skills spending has fallen from a high point of £4.4 billion in 2003-04 to its lowest level of £2.3 billion in 2017-18. Cuts to funding have resulted in a big reduction in the number of funded adult skills opportunities. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that, in 2005-06, the number of 19-plus government-funded FE places was close to 4 million. By 2009-10, this had fallen to 3.5 million. The latest figures for 2016-17 show it had dropped to 2.2 million.
‘The system has failed people’
Dr Sue Pember, director of policy at Holex, the professional body for adult community education and learning, says these figures tell a more important story than self-reported participation in learning. “The number [of funded places] is still dropping,” she says. “We spent 10 years building it up from the late 1990s, only for it to fall so much.”
The “self-motivated middle classes” will continue to find some form of learning, even if it is not funded, while it is the hard to reach people who are losing out, Pember adds. “Whole suites of really good initiatives to get people into learning and keep them in learning have gone. We’ve lost that infrastructure. That’s a disaster. The system has failed them.”
Pember believes the government’s latest flagship adult skills policy, the National Retraining Scheme (see box, below), must be as focused on improving the basic skills of those with poor literacy, numeracy and digital ability as it is on highly skilled learners.
The benefits of adult learning are often seen purely through the lens of skills and economic productivity, in no small part because of a dearth of research – indeed, a lack of randomised controlled trials into the indirect benefits of lifelong learning has been cited as hampering the case for better funding.
A randomised controlled trial is a type of study, used extensively in medical research, that aims to reduce bias when testing a new treatment or intervention. In 2005, education researcher Professor Carole Torgerson, of the University of York, conducted the most complete literature review of adult continuing learning research. With her colleagues, she found just nine randomised controlled trials on adult education had taken place between 1980 and 2002 across the entire world.
This point was picked up by economist and journalist Tim Harford at an international adult education conference in 2015. “Just to put that into context,” he said, “the epidemiologists, the doctors, they’re conducting 75 trials every day. That’s the gap in evidence: 75 trials a day versus nine trials in 22 years all across the world.”
And there has been little progress since then. Dr Andrew Morris, an honorary senior lecturer at the UCL Institute of Education and chair of the Coalition for Evidence-Based Education, says the adult education sector “suffers enormously” through a lack of evidence on its methods, learners, curriculum and impacts.
“The important, but overly narrow, focus on the direct economic benefits of learning leaves research on the wider benefits – including indirect economic ones – starved of funding,” he says. “There are strong indications that learning activity has positive benefits on physical and mental health, socialisation, community cohesion and civic participation.
“The potential value of these benefits for society and the economy apply as much to the over-18s as for younger people. Proving to budget holders that expenditure on adult learning will reap sufficient return on investment requires cross-sector collaboration.
“Equally, researchers from medicine, neuroscience, geography and information technology need to work together with education specialists and with adult learning practitioners. Interdisciplinary study is as important as cross-governmental policymaking.”
In a report on adult education published in October 2017, Dr Deirdre Hughes and Karen Adriaanse, from the Warwick Institute for Employment Research, argue that the health and wellbeing benefits of adult education risk being lost in the noise around the economic benefits. “This added-value contribution is at serious risk of being lost in a policy landscape preoccupied with apprenticeships, skills and qualification reforms,” the report states.
It concludes: “There is a danger that any future strategy for adult education might ignore the hundreds of courses that do not end in a formal qualification, yet are hugely beneficial to our local communities and the broader population – especially to people’s health and wellbeing.”
As it stands, even the prospect of a coherent national strategy for adult education appears a remote prospect.
The Department for Education was contacted for comment.
George Ryan is an FE reporter for Tes
Timeline: two decades in adult education policy
1998 The Learning Age
Described as “the high-water mark of lifelong learning policy in England”, New Labour’s Green Paper on adult education was championed by then education and employment secretary David Blunkett. It set out the party’s priority to lift barriers to learning. A wide range of new bodies were created, including a Training Standards Council, a National Skills Task Force, National Training Organisations, Regional Development Agencies and local learning centres.
2000 Individual Learning Accounts
One of the initiatives to come out of The Learning Age was the ill-fated Independent Learning Accounts scheme. The first million people to apply were eligible for a £150 grant towards the costs of training, if they chipped in at least £25 of their own money. Launched in September 2000, the programme attracted much more interest than expected, with some 2.6 million accounts opened in the first year, far exceeding the 1 million promised in Labour’s 1997 manifesto. The accounts were expected to cost the taxpayer £199 million, but the final bill exceeded £290 million, according to the National Audit Office (NAO), with fraud and other irregularities accounting for £97 million. The programme was scrapped in October 2001.
2000 The University for Industry
Another key plank of The Learning Age agenda was setting up a University for Industry. Blunkett predicted it would become “as integral to national life as the Open University”. In the end, the University for Industry operated under the name Learndirect and was largely delivered through online learning, focusing on basic skills, IT proficiency and workforce learning. By 2016-17, it received £121 million a year from government contracts, making it the largest FE and skills provider in the country. In 2017, the DfE announced it would no longer fund Learndirect, because of a “catastrophic” decline in standards and an “inadequate” grade from Ofsted.
2001 Jobcentre Plus
Rebranded from the Employment Service Jobcentre, the centres, run by the Department for Work and Pensions, can signpost jobseekers towards training.
2002 Sector Skills Councils
SSCs are employer-led organisations set up to boost workforce skills. They now have the added function of supporting employers in developing and managing apprenticeship standards.
2002 Sector Skills Development Agency
The agency was formerly responsible for funding, supporting and monitoring SSCs and for overseeing industries that fell outside an SSC footprint. In 2008, it became the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, which itself closed in 2017, with its functions transferring to the Institute for Apprenticeships.
Reforms led to apprenticeships being opened up to all adult learners, with the upper age limit of 25 scrapped.
2006 Train 2 Gain
This employer-based learning programme was targeted at those aged 25 and above who were yet to achieve a level 2 qualification. The scheme cost £1.47 billion by March 2009 and was criticised by the NAO as half of employers whose employees participated would have arranged similar training without a public subsidy. The report also notes that learner success rates varied substantially between training providers. Despite criticism, Train 2 Gain supported employer-focused training for more than 1 million learners and helped many to achieve their first qualification, which the NAO says “boosted their confidence”.
2010 Skills for Sustainable Growth
The Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition set out its skills agenda in this strategy document. The aim was to move from focusing on supply to the demand side, with a greater emphasis on employer-led training. The key commitment was to expand the number of adult apprenticeships by 75,000 by 2014-15, with nearly a quarter of the teaching and learning budget of the Skills Funding Agency for apprenticeships set aside for those aged 19 and above. Apprentices now make up more than one-third of all adult learners.
2013 Advanced learner loans
With the abolition of adult learning grants came the introduction of a loans-based system for adults aged 24-plus, aimed at those studying qualifications at level 3 or above in further education.
2017 Apprenticeship levy
The introduction of the levy resulted in an increase in the number of adult learners undertaking apprenticeships at work to “upskill”, including controversial MBA apprenticeships.
2019 and beyond Adult Education Budget devolution
From next year, about half of the overall Adult Education Budget will be devolved to mayoral combined authorities across England, as well as the Greater London Authority. The mayoral areas are: Cambridgeshire and Peterborough; Greater Manchester; Liverpool City; Sheffield City; Tees Valley; West Midlands; and the West of England. The mayors in each of these areas will be able to set their own skills strategies and decide how funding is spent.
The National Retraining Scheme
Last November, the chancellor Philip Hammond announced a partnership between the government, business organisation the CBI and the TUC “to set the strategic direction” for a new National Retraining Scheme. The scheme’s first priority, Hammond says, will be to boost digital skills and support expansion in the construction sector.