As a proud fellow of the adult education college City Lit and a staunch campaigner for people with learning disabilities, I was pleased to contribute to the second reading debate of the skills bill in the House of Lords recently.
Alongside other institutes for adult learning, City Lit works hard to ensure that all adults, whatever their age or stage in life, can receive high-quality education and learning throughout their lives. This is of particular importance to anyone who is in a vulnerable life situation or who require more support in their education journey, including disabled people.
During this stage of recovery from the pandemic, many people will need to rebuild their confidence before they will be ready for retraining or reskilling, for example, people with a lower level of formal skill, those with long Covid or people who have been in the same sector for decades and are still unprepared for a career change.
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There is heightened political interest in the sector with governmental strategy commitments in the Skills for Jobs White Paper, in the skills bill, and through the recently announced reform consultations. There will be a range of new duties on further and adult education providers with new powers for the education secretary to intervene where providers are not meeting local needs, and a focus on technical qualifications and on careers in certain sectors at level 3 and above.
One of the main elements I have been trying to grapple with is the review of how well education or training provided by individual institutions will meet local needs as seen through the lens of the needs of local employers.
It seems to me that the definition of local needs should incorporate the broadest range of outcomes, for example, progression into work for students taking non-accredited courses or qualifications below level 3. Indeed, recent Department for Education data has shown that the return on investment for qualifications below level 2 is higher than that for level 3. As many said in the second reading debate in the House of Lords, and in subsequent stages of the bill’s progress through the House, without adequate support for these lower-level qualifications, many students will not be ready and able to take up the level 3 offers which do feature in the bill.
The government’s recent announcement of their consultation into reform of FE funding and accountability demonstrates clear aspirations based around removal of bureaucracies; simplification of funding streams available; and multi-year funding proposals; as well as a commitment to enable the devolution of AEB funding to MCAs and the GLA to continue to have the impact it requires.
Broader outcomes of learning
At present, within all that has been published by the government about their skills agenda, there has been almost nothing about the broader outcomes of learning. Of course, employment is a priority for the country, and developing skills that support economic recovery are in the highest need. But, outcomes of learning such as improved confidence; better communication skills; improved wellbeing; removing isolation and loneliness, are as important to our national recovery following the Covid19 pandemic. These life skills outcomes are essential underpinnings to economic aspirations and employability, and I hope the government will recognise this.
Education institutions across the country have been impacted by the pandemic but throughout lockdown have continued to deliver high-quality provision by accelerating the development of online courses, retaining many of the strengths of venue-based provisions, such as interaction with tutors and other students, and the ability to draw on learning resources in a range of media.
Now that social distancing restrictions are lifting, institutions may look to provide both online and in-person provision to offer a range of courses that have greater flexibility than ever before. This is a key time to co-design some of this future provision with local employers and other local stakeholders. However, colleges and providers will be unable to maximise this without an increase in infrastructure, support and investment.
A core purpose of lifelong learning has always been to give people purpose through new experiences and knowledge and by connecting them with other like-minded individuals. We have some amazing institutions that work hard to ensure that everyone is enabled to learn and improve themselves as well as to hold roles and responsibilities within their communities. These institutions also provide pastoral support to many, on top of meeting the educational needs of their students.
So, what have I learned during my life about the skills that all citizens need for an uncertain but exciting future, especially during and after a pandemic? First, more traditional approaches to further and higher education are in need of a rethink. In further education, there is an aspiration to develop close links between education, business and the cultural and creative sectors. I want to see educational institutions become inclusive places that allow each and every person to find personal fulfilment—places that fully understand the ethical underpinning that enables equality of opportunity, where people can learn from each other, across traditional disciplines, learning to fuse arts, science and humanities to enrich them all. If we do not support the next generation to do this, we will be failing them.
To me, the pandemic launched a cultural revolution that has left some people feeling out of their depth and others thriving because of the resilience and adaptability for which their life experiences and education to date has prepared them. We, therefore, need to be careful not to put all learners in one box.
My own particular focus is to make sure that adults with learning disabilities are not left behind, and that this future strategy ensures that individuals who need high-quality education but may experience significant barriers to accessing it, are better catered for. Institutions such as City Lit, offering world-leading provision for adults with learning disabilities, the deaf community and people who stammer or struggle with communication issues, must be able to continue this invaluable work.
As parliamentarians consider the bill, and the government look to drive forward a new strategy, let us ensure that no one is left out.