‘The things that make it worthwhile to live’

As the Lords met this week to debate adult education and lifelong learning, two reports were published indicating the urgent need for more and better adult learning opportunities and the reversal of cuts which have left the sector an emaciated shadow of what it was just a few years ago, punching at a weight far below that necessary to turn around the UK’s ailing productivity.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) published a review of adult skills in England which reported that nine million adults of working age in England have low basic skills, more than a quarter of all those aged between 16 and 65. These adults, the report says, ‘struggle with basic quantitative reasoning’, such as estimating how much petrol is in a tank from looking at the gauge, or ‘have difficulty with simple written information’, such as the instructions on a bottle of medicine. There is a further worry, the OECD adds, in that young adults in England perform no better than older ones in skills tests, struggling particularly in numeracy. England has three times more low-skilled young people than high-performing countries such as Finland, Japan and the Netherlands.

The OECD’s recommendations included calls to improve transitions from school to work, including through good-quality apprenticeships, to prioritise early interventions in addressing basic skills problems and, more controversially, to divert young people with poor basic skills from university to shorter professional programmes in further education to ‘help to rebalance the English education system towards one which would be both more efficient in the use of public resources and fairer to all’.

The report also had some important messages regarding adult education. Research evidence should be used to develop teaching methods and guide interventions, it said, recognising that ‘successful adult learning programmes need to motivate learners’ (helping children with their homework one possible motivation suggested). Attention should also be given to the development of a high-quality teaching workforce which uses evidence-based teaching methods, including greater use of e-learning and a ‘contextualised’ approach to basic skills. And better use should be made of relevant learning environments, such as occupational and family contexts. The report, again, notes the double benefit of family literacy and numeracy programmes which not only support parents as learners but can also have a transformative influence on their children.

On the same day as the OECD report was published, the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) published its employer skills survey for 2015, examining the experience and practice of over 90,000 UK employers. The report highlighted a 130 per cent increase in the number of job vacancies unfilled because of skills shortages over the past four years. ‘Skills shortage vacancies’ now make up nearly a quarter of all job openings, rising from 91,000 in 2011 to 309,000 in 2015, the report said. In addition, two million workers across the UK have skills and experience which are not being utilised in their current job.

Lesley Giles, deputy director of UKCES, said that the UK needed urgently to boost its productivity, which continues to lag behind that of its competitor nations. This, she said, not only demanded a supply of worker with the right skills, but an economy that created ‘good jobs that produce high-quality, bespoke goods and services’. Douglas McCormick, a commissioner at UKCES, noted that the ‘exceptionally strong job creation’ of the past few years has been accompanied by ‘stalling productivity levels. This is unsurprising since, as the OECD report authors argue, weak skills ‘reduce productivity and employability, damage citizenship and are therefore profoundly implicated in challenges of equity and social exclusion’. Both reports agree that improving the skills of the existing workforce is crucial to the UK closing the productivity gap.

The scale of this challenge was highlighted in what was, nevertheless, in general, a very positive debate in the Lords. Lib Dem peer Baroness Sharp, who moved the debate, began by noting both the demographic challenges of an ageing society in which a high proportion of future job vacancies will have to be filled by members of the current workforce and the ‘chronic shortage in vital technical and professional skills which are key to raising productivity’. Evidently, current workers will need to retrain and update their skills regularly if they are to remain economically useful and productive in the face of rapid technological change. Despite this picture of clear and heightening need, the current trends in terms of adult skills and education are not good, she said. Part-time HE student numbers have fallen by 58 per cent since the introduction of full-cost 9,000 tuition fees, the Baroness observed, with the Open University and Birkbeck hit hard and part-time courses closing as they become unviable.

At the same time, she continued, the FE adult skills budget had fallen by 35 per cent since 2009, with adult learners in FE colleges increasingly something of an endangered species. ‘Fifteen years ago, 50 per cent of students at further education colleges were adult students,’ she said. ‘Today it is only 15 per cent’. In the past five years alone, the number of people participating in adult education – including apprenticeships, work-based learning and community learning – had dropped by 1.3 million, she said. There had been a significant and welcome increase in the number of adults on apprenticeships, but too many were of poor quality and at a relatively low level, often going to people already in employment. Efforts to increase the number of apprentices, including the levy on large employers, were welcome, she added, but did not, by themselves, constitute the comprehensive skills strategy we need.

Baroness’s Sharp’s themes were picked up with notable warmth by other speakers. ‘We cannot ignore the vast potential of those who want to continue learning, and we need to enable easy access to opportunities for adult education and skills, whatever one’s age or stage in life,’ urged Baroness Redfern (Conservative), who also stressed the importance of local relationships and new technologies. Baroness Bakewell (Labour) emphasised the need for lifelong education to ‘sustain the skills and expertise that support our jobs and our economy’ and ‘to nourish the sense of who we are, giving depth and insight to our sense of identity and enlarging our common humanity’. Baroness Greenfield (cross-bench) likewise stressed the wider value of adult education, highlighting the ‘impact of adult learning on well-being and hence its clear societal benefits’. Lord Rees (cross-bench) identified ‘a growing national need for flexible part-time education for young people seeking to qualify for gainful employment, for those in later life wishing to update their skills and for those in the third age simply wishing to follow intellectual interests’.

Baroness Stedman-Scott (Conservative) echoed the sentiments of many in the chamber in saying that ‘ongoing training, skills development and education for everyone are critical to our economy. However, to have that, we need capacity and as flexible an approach as is practical, if we are to maximise the potential and ensure that we have the highly skilled and motivated workforce that employers need.’ Not everyone, however, was as sanguine about the prospects for the sector following the cash-terms protection granted the adult skills budget in the spending review. The much-vaunted ‘protection’ follows cuts on an historically unprecedented scale, including a 28 per cent reduction in the last year alone. These cuts, described by Alison Wolf as ‘catastrophic’, have narrowed the learning offer and put in doubt the viability of dozens of institutions which now face the further turmoil of the government’s partial and ill-conceived programme of area reviews. Baroness Kennedy (Labour), who cited her still remarkably relevant 1997 report, Learning Works, warned:

I fear for further education because it is still being neglected – it is poorly funded and never given the esteem it deserves – and yet it is so fundamental to the wellbeing of this nation and the opportunities it provides for so many. Indeed, it could provide so much more in the future. It is a source of regret to me that we are not doing enough with their precious part of our educational world.

Further education, she said, was, traditionally, the place where women returning after having children and people who became disenchanted with school or whose families said education was not for them, can get a second chance. Education, she concluded, had to be ‘at the heart of any inspired project for regeneration’, providing a springboard not only for economic regeneration but also for greater equity and justice in society, helping close ‘the growing gulf between those who have and those who have not’.

By contrast, Baroness Evans, responding for the government, showed little understanding either of the scale of the challenges faced by adult education and skills or of its wider role in addressing inequality and promoting social cohesion. Acknowledging the role of adult education and skills in improving productivity, she said that the government was ‘committed to major improvements in adult education to meet the needs of the economy’. This commitment took the form of the government maintaining the adult education budget in cash terms following year-on-year cuts (what would have happened had the government not been committed to improving adult education doesn’t bear thinking about). The responsibility for funding had to be shared by government, employers and individuals, she said, though, to date, the government has shown much more enthusiasm for cutting funding from the first source than it has for the more difficult task of encouraging and incentivising funding from the other sources. There is the apprenticeship levy, of course, which Baroness Evans cited, but, as Baroness Sharp argued, this does not amount to anything like the comprehensive strategy for skills and education we require. Her understanding of lifelong learning was also depressingly narrow, focused only on how it can contribute to economic growth and employability. She concluded by noting that area reviews were making sure FE was ‘more efficient, financially resilient and locally responsive’. The reality on the ground, however, is likely to be fewer colleges and less choice for learners, with opportunity increasingly subject to a postcode lottery. The review process is a rushed and short-term response to swingeing cuts that have left many institutions in danger of financial collapse and not the sort of thoughtful, wide-ranging review of how to deliver the skills and capabilities we as a society actually need that would have real and lasting value.

Baroness Sharp’s call for a comprehensive approach to adult education and skills grounded in much closer collaboration between colleges, universities and training providers, local authorities and other public sector organisations warrants serious consideration. We also need more partnership and coherence across government, as well as relief from the near constant churn in policy and policymakers, which has afflicted the FE sector, in particular, for decades. Increased resource will be essential too both in supporting breadth of provision and fair opportunity for all and in ensuring the recruitment and retention of a high-quality teaching workforce to deliver the step change we need. Colleges are already reporting difficulty in recruiting and retaining staff, with the significant added pressure of equipping young people with the English and maths qualifications they didn’t get at school making retention still more difficult. I regularly hear stories of FE teachers leaving post, with no job to go to, because of the pressures they face at work. I hear a lot of positive things too but it seems clear that, in places, teacher morale is becoming a serious issue. This needs to change if the sector is to attract and retain the high-calibre workforce the OECD says we need.

Crucially too, as Baroness Sharp also argues, these arrangements must attend not only to skills but to adult education more broadly as well (a dimension Baroness Evans conspicuously failed to acknowledge). This is critically important. We need a broader, more expansive curriculum that not only develops occupational skills but the skills of adaptation, resilience, creativity, citizenship, critical thinking and lifelong learning other speakers talked about. Part of our problem is the narrowness of our thinking about skills, our tendency to think of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’, ‘cognitive’ and ‘non-cognitive’ skills as somehow separate and unrelated when in fact they occupy the same complex and interconnected ecology. Ultimately, the ongoing narrowing of adult education’s mission to focus almost exclusively on skills directly do with employment has failed to achieve even the limited aim of improving the UK’s productivity. It should not surprise us that the skills that make an economy successful are also those that help make us more thoughtful, creative, happy, cooperative and passionate about learning new things. To echo cross-bench peer Lord Hennessey’s quotation of RH Tawney during the Lords debate, adult education should be concerned ‘not merely with the machinery of existence, but with the things that make it worthwhile to live’.