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'The unequal pattern of participation in learning is not fair'

The Niace chief executive reflects on Adult Learners' Week 2015

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The Niace chief executive reflects on Adult Learners' Week 2015

“Today the government is presiding over cuts to the adult education system and it baffles me that the opportunity to rebuild and transform lives is at risk of being taken away. There is a whole generation of people like me today, people who need, at the very least, the option to go back into education.

"If someone like me, a Barnsley lad who has been back in education for three years, can see the flaws in potentially shutting off people's chances at self-improvement, then surely those who preside over the cuts, those who were educated at the "better universities", can see that as well.”

These were the words of Lee Hughes (no relation), our outstanding learner of the year at the Adult Learners’ Week Awards last Monday. He spoke them to a spellbound audience of parliamentarians and guests at the end of an inspiring and moving speech as part of the Niace reception hosted by Barry Sheerman MP.

Lee’s words nicely sum up my feelings following this year’s Adult Learners’ Week. I worry and wonder about the lack of understanding generally in society about the importance and power of learning. Attitudes to lifelong learning seemingly have not been influenced by the strong evidence we have for its benefits, both quantitative and qualitative.

Our awards ceremonies across the country provided some of that evidence. They revealed great stories of people who have transformed their lives through learning, the tutors who have supported them and the projects and employers that achieve so much by creating places and environments in which people can thrive, grow and develop. Put together, our award-winners set out clearly, compellingly and passionately all the benefits of lifelong learning – confidence, well-being, health, family, community, work, progression, productivity, business success, tolerance, citizenship and...I could go on. These stories demonstrate the human side of the evidence but there is plenty of corresponding quantitative research as well.

Like Lee, though, the excitement I feel about the power of learning is contrasted with sadness and anger that the opportunities for adults to learn after their initial education have declined so much in the past five years – and look set to decline further. The focus on young people is understandable, and as a father of three teenagers I support that. But it should not be at the expense of people who have missed out in their early years. It is not fair to so many people who have talent and potential, and it is short-sighted given the challenges we face as a society and for our economy.

The fairness issue is clear. Our annual participation survey shows this year that socio-economic class differences have a marked effect on behaviour. People in classes A and B are twice as likely to have participated in learning in the past three years as those in D and E. Those who left full-time education at 21 are also twice as likely to have gone back to learning as those who left school at 16. Those in work are more likely to participate in learning than unemployed people. You get the picture. This unequal pattern of participation in learning is not fair, and it undermines social and economic policy goals.

The relative disregard for lifelong learning is striking in all sorts of ways. Take three of the government’s own targets: a more productive Britain, halving the disability unemployment gap and creating 3 million apprenticeships. All these rely on adults of all ages having opportunities to learn. None will be achieved without wider participation, better access, flexible opportunities and realising the potential of millions of people. So the government’s own targets and ambitions surely require higher investment in lifelong learning rather than cuts.

Over the next 10 years there will be almost two job vacancies for every young person leaving education. To fill those vacancies, either we need more highly skilled immigrants or we need greater numbers of adults to retrain, participate in the labour market and work into their sixties and perhaps seventies. Surely this means that investment in lifelong learning is critical? And that’s before we even begin to consider the skills shortages that already exist in areas including general practice, nursing, engineering and construction.

The answer is not simply about government investment. We need a new settlement that motivates and incentivises all of us to invest in our own learning and skills, supported by employers. We need that settlement to be clear about the investment the government will make to support those who need it most. This has to include support for literacy, numeracy and digital skills as well as pathways to higher skills, access to apprenticeships through an improved traineeship programme and access to higher education. The government has a critical role in incentivising and informing employer and individual investment. Adult Learners’ Week and the Skills Show are great examples of how that can be done, alongside targeted individual support through our proposal of a career advancement service and mid-life career reviews.

My hope is that this government appreciates the need for reform of the employment and skills systems and recognises the power of learning. If it does, then now is the time to work with us and others to develop a new vision, with a new settlement between state, citizen and employers that really does have the ambition of creating a truly lifelong learning society. Investing in that partnership and vision won’t cost much but could make so much difference.

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