For me, serving on Labour’s Lifelong Learning Commission (LLC) was personal. Thirty years ago, I benefited from affordable night classes in a way that changed my life. Yet these days, with participation in adult education in freefall, such opportunities are both rare and expensive.
The commission recommendations, published just prior to the 2019 election, were a radical attempt to recast this kind of opportunity not just as an individual benefit but as a critical factor in reducing social and economic inequality across the whole spectrum of public policy.
That is why I have joined other commissioners in calling today for all the candidates in the Labour leadership elections to commit to supporting these recommendations, and to putting lifelong learning at the heart of the party’s strategy.
The purpose of education
The recommendations seek to build on some of the best moments of Labour in government. It was Labour in 1945 that described the purpose of education as to create “individual citizens capable of thinking for themselves”. It was Labour who created the Open University and expanded higher and technical education in the 1960s. It was Labour that set out what remains the aspiration for a "learning age" in 1997. And it is Labour that, in recent years, has argued for a national education service from cradle to grave.
Lifelong learning has always been important. But in a world where technology moves at a rapid pace; economic change is often felt negatively by those who have the least power; and where many feel left behind and lack the tools or social capital to catch up, it is becoming essential.
I believe the commission’s report is shaped by three key insights. First, that the cost of education and the fear of debt remains a significant deterrent for many who would otherwise benefit. Second that every government and local authority department can have a positive or negative impact on access to lifelong learning. Third that in order to access even the best-resourced system people need to understand it.
That is why in addition to recommending a universal, fully funded right to learn throughout life right up to and including university, the commission also called for every government department to be required to consider the impact of their policies on lifelong learning and for a national information, advice and guidance service available both face-to-face and online for those who need it.
There is much more besides in the recommendations including the provision of maintenance support for adults to facilitate access to training; new rights and responsibilities for employers and unions to encourage more at-work learning; and a very welcome focus on improving the conditions of staff in the lifelong learning sector.
The central question for any political party is how it can demonstrate that its policies will make peoples’ lives materially better. Slogans about fair work, dignity in old age, social integration and reskilling are empty if there is no fair and affordable way for people to access the new skills they need to make these policies a reality.
That is why Labour’s policy should be to put education and skills within everyone’s reach. From providing more in-work training to expanding ESOL language courses and ensuring that nobody is shut out from going to back to college or university, the priority must be these things within the grasp of those communities who are suffering most – in Carl Sagan’s words, to create the conditions for “citizenry with minds wide awake”.
Labour is not in government now. However, a clear signal from the leadership contenders that they recognise the importance of these issues would send a powerful signal to those who are in power – within local government. Like other commissioners, I would love to see local pilots of some of our proposals and, particularly, of the idea of joining up the "learning links" between different policy areas and providers. Adopting these recommendations will also send a powerful signal to the Conservative government that vague pledges to increase skills provision are simply not good enough – we need concrete actions that speak to the wide variety of needs in our society.
Labour has a proud record when it comes to lifelong learning. The next big leap is about recognising the significant contribution that education can make to the betterment of life for every person in every community – not just those who already benefit the most.
Matt Waddup is a member of Labour's Lifelong Learning Commission and head of policy and campaigns at the University and College Union