The nation faces major skills and employment challenges. The Fourth Industrial Revolution, the changing nature of work, an ageing population, and now the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic all loom large. As a result of the pandemic, unemployment is expected to rise to a peak of 2.6 million people by the second quarter of 2021. To meet these challenges, adults will increasingly need to upskill and reskill throughout their lives. The current approach to education funding is overwhelmingly focused on education before the age of 25. We must move away from this model, towards a system and culture of lifelong learning that encourages education at any age.
There are overwhelming benefits to lifelong learning; benefits for productivity and the economy, for health and wellbeing, and for social justice and communities. Adults who gain level 3 qualifications (equivalent to A level) see a 10% increase in earnings and are more likely to be employed, while research into community learning and mental health found that 52% of learners no longer had clinically significant symptoms of anxiety and depression by the end of their course.
Yet poor access to lifelong learning is one of the great social injustices of our time and there are significant skills gaps which urgently need to be addressed. By 2024 there will be a shortfall of four million highly skilled workers. Nine million working-age adults in England have low literacy or numeracy skills, or both, and six million adults are not qualified to level 2 (equivalent to GCSE level). Participation in adult education is at its lowest level in 23 years and funding fell by 45% between 2008–9 and 2018–19. 49% of adults from the lowest socioeconomic group have received no training since leaving school. We must reverse this decline and offer a way forward.
This can be done through an ambitious, long-term strategy for adult skills and lifelong learning—a comprehensive and holistic vision for lifelong learning that works for every adult in every community. We heard that the lack of a coherent, long-term strategy and vision for lifelong learning has resulted in an unhelpful churn of initiatives, with the adult skills landscape lurching from one policy priority to the next. We found that there are key areas requiring urgent reform, including childcare for adult learners, English for speakers of other languages provision, modular learning, local skills offers, information, advice and guidance, and adult learning for those with SEND. Alongside these, we identified four key pillars that are needed to set the long-term foundation for a revitalised adult education system.
Adult community learning providers are the jewel in the crown of the nation’s adult education landscape. They bring learning to disadvantaged communities, providing a lifeline for adults furthest from qualifications and employment. 92% of Local Authority community learning services are rated ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted. But there has been a 32% decline in participation in community learning between 2008–9 and 2018–19, with participation falling for five consecutive years.
We are not persuaded that the Department fully grasps the value and purpose of community learning. Nor does it appear that the Department has a vision or strategic approach for boosting this vital area of lifelong learning.
The Department must work with the sector to grasp what data exists on community learning and where any gaps might be. This should include figures for how many community learning centres exist nationally. The Department must set out an ambitious plan for a community learning centre in every town. These do not need to be new buildings or organisations: we should make use of existing organisations and assets, such as colleges, church halls and libraries.
The Department should introduce Individual Learning Accounts, funded through the National Skills Fund. Individual Learning Accounts (ILAs) would devolve funding to learners, giving them choice and agency over their learning and career development. The failures of the ILA scheme in 2000–01 have meant that ILAs remain political kryptonite for English policymaking. But provided lessons are learnt, ILAs could kickstart participation and play a key role in enhancing the employment prospects of adults affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. The Department can build on small-scale schemes close to home. Scotland, for example, spent £3.7 million on funding Individual Training Accounts for around 22,000 adults over 2018/19. Ultimately, we believe Individual Learning Accounts need to have a truly lifelong emphasis, moving beyond a one-off grant, to a system where adults receive several further top-up investments throughout their working lives to revitalise training and upskilling.
Despite the clear need for the higher-level skills which are key to productivity, part-time higher education has fallen into disrepair. Part-time student numbers collapsed by 53% between 2008–09 and 2017–18, and we heard that the fall over this decade has resulted in over one million lost learners. We must nurse part-time higher education back to full health.
To do so, the Department must instate fee grants for part-time learners from the most disadvantaged backgrounds who study courses that meet the skills needs of the nation. The Department must also extend maintenance support to part-time distance learners.
The picture on employer investment in training is bleak indeed. 39% of employers admit to training none of their staff, and overall, employer-led training has declined by a half since the end of the 1990s.
To restore employer-led training, the Government must introduce tax credits for employers who invest in training for their low-skilled workers.