Lifelong Learning Is Essential For A Fairer, Better Society (Guest Blog)

We are delighted to publish this guest blog from Ruth Spellman, CEO & General Secretary of the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA).

Wherever you look at present there is wide acknowledgement of the role and importance of lifelong learning – it features in the very recent government Foresight Report, the report of the Social Mobility Commission and was an integral part of Justine Greening’s strategy to leave no community or group behind because of lack of access to education and skills. The Industrial Strategy makes over 250 references to skills as a key component in our future economic success, many of which are not delivered or covered by compulsory school age education. Yet our education system itself is primarily and overwhelmingly geared to support the under 19s. Resource availability rapidly tapers off beyond that point. Infrastructure has also been eroded over recent years with cuts in funding for adults in real terms of 50% since 2010.

Over 90% of the DFE Budget is spent on under 19s – less than 10% is available, therefore, for the majority of the population many of whom need repeated opportunities to improve their education and skills. There are of course many adverse consequences for our society and economy. The conclusion that I have reached is that there should be a rebalancing – with more invested in the skills of the population as a whole if we are to become a highly productive nation capable of sustaining itself and competing with the rest of the world. The WEA has called for an adult education strategy which is broader and more comprehensive than any we have seen since the education act of 1947. It should cover access to learning, infrastructure issues and rights for adult students to enjoy parity of esteem with the ‘traditional student’. We are not just talking about vocationally specific and higher level skills but delivering opportunities for people to access the current entitlements to English maths and digital skills which should underpin our education system.

We should commit to removing the barriers that currently stand in the way, making good the current deficiencies and gaps and the clear disparities which exist in every community. In addition the ‘working poor’ need to be able to earn and learn, and older people who have left the workforce should be able to derive the health and social benefits which come from continuing access to education. The ‘ladder of opportunity’ which Robert Halfon and other Ministers have talked about has several missing rungs on it – our system of delivery is frequently patchy, bureaucratic and inflexible so that it fails to meet the needs of too many employers or employees. Still less those who are the furthest away from the labour market, with few or no qualifications. Fundamental to future delivery should be a national offer which is well communicated coupled with flexibility in delivery and local access – and a much increased scale of provision to meet the variety of student needs at all ages.

We see benefits from a collaborative approach between education providers with incentives and rewards for Universities, Colleges and schools who open their doors to adults and include the adult students in their community engagement work and in their targets for widening and deepening participation. It’s an acknowledged fact that parental achievement and educational background has the most profound impact on the educational achievement of young people so the benefits would be across all age groups. We would like to see schools and colleges open at weekends, offering a variety of courses for adults. After all the infrastructure for education has been paid for by everyone – we have made a choice to limit access to young people. 

In her speech of 14th December Justine Greening said ‘the reality in modern Britain where you start is still too often where you finish …. and for many people it’s a whole lifespan of missed opportunities. We have talent spread evenly across this great country – the problem is that opportunity isn’t’. However, we still have to see a joined up strategy across the country which would establish a level playing field for all irrespective of social, cultural and economic background, creed or class. We face a real risk with the devolution deals in England of making the postcode lottery worse, with little or no consistency of quality or access for the most vulnerable adults.

My final plea is that we should listen to students themselves and genuinely create a more demand-led system. Government’s role is to create the right infrastructure but not to dictate the types of education that are most needed. Recent moves to make more flexible use of the apprenticeship levy are very welcome but this is just a small part of the issue. We also need more short courses, 24/7 access for people at work and degrees and diplomas that are modular and can be delivered by more than one institution. We need a plurality of cultural and arts based education which can engage older students and stimulate participation. The role of the voluntary sector should not be overlooked as well as the statutory sector – because we are better able to engage the most disadvantaged and can leverage volunteer support.

This is a guest blog and the views of the author are not necessarily those of The Equality Trust.