'We're still a long way off the promised end to austerity'

Funding cuts for adult learning and lower employer investment have slowed progress in improving skills, warns Stephen Evans

Stephen Evans

Learning and Work chief executive Stephen Evans writes that the chancellor's promised end to austerity is still some distance away

The UK risks falling behind other countries as improvements in learning and skills have slowed. A higher ambition can boost economic growth and social justice.

Normally the chancellor’s Spring Statement would be a headline-grabbing affair. But, while it still matters, everything in national politics today is framed by the Brexit debate.

The chancellor suggests that the spending taps can be turned on if we reach a Brexit settlement, while deeper analysis suggests an “end to austerity” still seems some distance away.

A lot of this has become a series of short-term debates. A new Learning and Work Institute report tries to shift the focus to the longer-term. We have looked ahead to 2030, which seems doubly distant when next week is a lifetime away in the current political environment.

Read more: 'Boost adult education spending or UK will lag behind'

More views: 'There's no excuse for lagging behind on English and maths'

Background: UK ‘will drop’ in world literacy and numeracy table

Skills going backwards

The bad news is our report shows that cuts to public funding for adult learning and lower employer investment have significantly slowed progress in improving skills in the UK over the past decade. Even worse, because other countries are continuing to improve (often from a higher base), the UK is poised to slip backwards in the international league tables by 2030.

We risk being stuck in fifth place among the G7 for intermediate qualifications (level 2 and level 3), and falling from 10th to 14th of the 17 nations surveyed for literacy and numeracy. There’s a better story to tell on higher-level qualifications, but with well-known concerns about the variety of routes and chances to learn throughout life.

All of this matters profoundly. The Great Recession following the financial crisis has been followed by a Great Stagnation in economic growth. Independent forecasts think our economy may now have a permanently lower speed limit.

This limits how fast living standards can rise and the money that can be raised for public services. Taken together, this helps to explain the government’s difficulties in convincing people that austerity is over: many people don’t feel any better off than 10 years ago and many public services may face further cuts.

Economic growth and social mobility

The best learning at all levels can boost both economic growth and social justice – this is not an either or issue. The idea that lower level learning is good for social mobility and higher level learning is good for productivity is a false dichotomy.

For example, basic skills boost productivity (as well as social mobility) and degree-level apprenticeships can open up new opportunities to people (as well as increasing productivity).

Continuing on the current path would hold back economic growth and constrain social justice. In practice, that means slower growth in people’s living standards and a struggle to invest sufficiently in public services.

This is neither unavoidable nor inevitable. Our report sets out a higher ambition, focused on accelerating progress in literacy and numeracy and intermediate skills. Improving education could contribute to this.

Big return on investment

But with 75 per cent of our 2030 workforce having already left compulsory education, we will need many more adults to participate in learning. Our scenario would mean an additional 3 million people improving their basic skills over the next 10 years, 1.9 million more achieving level 2 qualifications and 1.8 million more achieving level 3.

That sounds ambitious. But, in practice, it means returning the number of adults improving their skills each year roughly to the levels seen in 2010, though with more improving their basic skills and level 3 qualifications. It would cost an additional £1.9 billion per year, but would more than pay this back through increased tax revenue and reduced public spending in other areas.

All told, setting a higher ambition could boost the economy by £20 billion per year and help an extra 200,000 people in work, as well as supporting social justice.

Of course, this is not just about economics or skills. The launch event for our report talked about how to increase participation in learning more generally and how to work with employers to increase the utilisation of skills.

A higher ambition for learning and skills

The event also debated how we could learn from other policy areas, such as pensions, to build a national consensus for doing better. Robert Halfon, chair of the Commons Education Select Committee, challenged us all to work together to make the case for a 10-year plan for learning and skills.

We also debated how to translate that vision into reality. That included considering where next for the apprenticeship levy, whether GCSEs are outdated now that young people are expected to stay in learning until age 18, and the role of employers.

There are lots of building blocks in place: whatever their flaws, apprenticeships and T levels have great potential. And there are lots of ideas for making a difference: our analysis is UK-wide, but the response and approach will clearly need to vary across the UK.

But the first step is to build an agreement that slowing progress in learning and skills is limiting economic growth and social justice. It is time now for a higher ambition for learning and skills across the UK. It is time for action.

Stephen Evans is chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute 

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