Towards a national strategy for lifelong learning

The Chancellor will shortly announce the details of his autumn budget. As usual, education advocacy groups will be watching closely to see if their part of the sector gets favourable mention.

Often, in education at least, good news in one part of the system is bought at the expense of another, less fortunate, part – usually FE or adult education. It’s a depressing indicator of the lack of coherence and system-wide thinking that has blighted education policy-making in England for years.

If I have one wish for this year’s budget it is that Mr Hammond will give us some indication that the government will move beyond this robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul approach and demonstrate some understanding that the overall coherence and consistent, fair funding of the UK education system matter.

The budget will be viewed, quite rightly, as an opportunity for the government to consider realistically the challenges and opportunities Brexit presents and to set out, in broad brush strokes at least, how the it proposes to respond. The nature of these challenges and opportunities is such that the government really has no option but to put education at the heart of its plans for the future – that is if it is serious about making a success of Brexit for everyone and not just the folks at the top.

The problem for the Chancellor is that for some time now successive governments have been heading in the wrong direction, underfunding the education system as a whole, while slashing funding for less-protected areas to prevent schools and universities feeling the pinch too much. The result has been a system that is incoherent, unfair and increasingly underfunded.

Only the steady flow of imported talent from outside the UK, mostly from the EU, has kept our vital services supplied with the high-level skills they require to run effectively. Until the Brexit vote, I think people were generally fairly happy to let this state of affairs continue, quietly brushing under the carpet our Premier League style poaching of talent cultivated at great expense elsewhere. But, really, it’s not ok. If we had asked tougher questions earlier, perhaps we wouldn’t be in the mess we are in now.

No part of the sector has suffered more from the underfunding of education in the UK than further education, and no part of society has been more neglected by our education system than adult learners.

For years, further education has been kicked from pillar to post by politicians keen to make their mark but with, by and large, little grasp of how the system works or what is at stake for the learners who populate it. On the rare occasion that a minister or secretary of state who cares about and understands the sector is appointed, their best efforts serve only to steady the ship, not change its course, before the next tsunami of myopic and narrowly conceived reform hits, usually driven by a determination to reduce costs or introduce competition into the sector.

It would be hard to find anyone in or around the sector who thinks the government has got it broadly right when it comes to further education, but we carry on as though, with only a few adjustments, it could all be ok. The looming spectre of Brexit means we can no longer afford to do this. Frankly, we never could. The cost of our failure to invest properly in the talents of our homegrown population can be seen everywhere, in the blighted hopes and aspirations of the young people and adults who leave compulsory education labelled as failures by a system that selects on the basis of wealth not talent.

Nowhere is the government’s failure to invest adequately more evident than in adult education. The latest government data show steep declines in the numbers of adults learning basic skills (six per cent in 2016-17 alone) and in the numbers participating in community learning, a critical means of engaging reluctant learners and empowering individuals and communities who have been left behind. It is often left to the providers of community learning to step in and pick up the pieces for those who leave the school system utterly alienated from education. For adults afraid of entering a classroom, whose educational experience has taught them to value themselves less not more, such providers offer critical, safe entry points, often leading to work or into further learning. This means that cuts in this type of provision are likely to have direct consequences for participation in other types of learning, as well as in the economy.

With an ageing population that scores low in international literacy and numeracy league tables, a long history of poor productivity hinging very largely on our tendency to neglect the educational needs of the majority of our people, and an overreliance on imported workers at both ends of the skills chain, recent cuts to adult and further education funding are, to put it mildly, counter intuitive.

These cuts have been both savage and unnecessary. In one year alone the adult education budget was cut by a quarter – and that on top of deep cuts inflicted in the preceding years. At the same time, part-time higher study has collapsed utterly, squeezing adults out of HE at a moment in history when the need for adults to reskill and move careers has never been more acute. As the OU’s Peter Horrocks pointed out last week, there has been a 56 per cent drop since tuition fees were trebled.

University lifelong learning, for so long a driver of progressive change in the system, has also been considered a price worth paying for a system which pulls off the neat trick of being both costlier to the tax payer and dizzyingly expensive for students with spiralling debts. In terms of costs to students, the English education system is now pretty much an outlier. And our eye-wateringly expensive system increasingly offers two kinds of education: a traditional liberal arts education for the mostly already privileged student at elite institutions; a vocationally flavoured higher education experience for the rest. In England, what you get for your tuition fees is determined not so much by what you pay as by what you can afford.

While increased investment is urgently needed across the board, it is important too that money is spent intelligently and coherently. This means ensuring that the expansion in apprenticeships is complemented by training which ensures people are ready to take on an apprenticeship as well as well-funded careers advice. It means acknowledging that family and community learning make a crucial contribution to getting adults furthest from education engaged in learning once again, and funding it accordingly. It means making sure ESOL provision is adequately funded so it can make a full contribution to the creation of flourishing, cohesive communities. And it means recognising that the benefits of education are not purely economic and represent a substantial public good that we should all be prepared to invest in. Employers too.

The failure of successive governments to see that the value of education cannot be measured purely in pounds and pence has significantly impoverished our education offer, in schools, in the community, in colleges and training providers, and in the university sector.

In light of these challenges we need nothing less than a national strategy for lifelong learning, with adult education at its heart. We need a strategy that joins up all the different interrelated strands and demonstrates active understanding of how they relate to and complement each other. Labour’s plan for a National Education Service, with its intellectual roots in David Blunkett’s much-admired Learning Age Green Paper (from which this blog takes its name), is a step in the right direction. It’s promise of greater coherence, fairer funding and wider access, and its recognition of the public good of education, represent at the very least something concrete to build on and improve. Above all, it offers the kind of definitive shift in the narrative we need. If the government is serious about making a success of post-Brexit Britain, it must act, decisively and comprehensively, to reverse years of underinvestment and reinvigorate our over-stretched, incoherent and underfunded education system, starting where the cuts have done the most damage: adult education.

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