A plan for an adult skills and lifelong learning revolution Contents

3The need for a national strategy

It is important not only to look at other countries in terms of what we can do now but what we ourselves have been able to do in the past. It is only 40 or 50 years since we had an adult education system that was, if you like, world leading. We have thrown that away collectively. We have talked about the last 10 years, but that decline has actually been going on for 30-odd years. We need to rebuild. Q38 [Professor John Holford]

The decline in participation

11.Despite the wide-ranging benefits that adult education has been proven to bring, adult skills and lifelong learning is in need of restoration. Alongside a 45% decline in funding for adult skills over the last decade,22 participation has fallen to its lowest rate in 23 years,23 and 38% of adults have not participated in any learning since leaving full time education.24 Iain Murray, senior policy officer at the Trades Union Congress (TUC), told us:

Some of the independent surveys of adult learning show now only about one in three adults are taking part in any form of learning. Participation is down by 10 percentage points since 2010—nearly four million fewer adult learners, with one million fewer adult learners in the FE system and part-time university students down from 250,000 to 100,000.25

12.The overall picture is indeed stark:

13.There has certainly been no shortage of adult education policy initiatives over the years. All too often, however, these initiatives have been piecemeal, ineffectual and short-lived, sometimes doing more harm than good, and lacking coherent strategic direction. In essence, the Government’s approach is characterised by ‘initiativitis’. The Engineering Construction Industry Training Board told us that a comprehensive strategy for embedding lifelong learning is needed:

Crucially, the strategy should not be reduced to single albeit well-intentioned initiatives, rather a holistic approach is required that provides consistent opportunities for adults to access learning and reskilling opportunities wherever they live and whatever their background, either via their employer or on their own initiative.31

The failure of the Individual Learning Accounts scheme introduced in 2000 illustrates what happens when an ambitious policy to increase participation is sunk through poor planning and inadequate risk management.32 More recently, the reform of tuition fees in 2012, and removal of maintenance grants had the unintended consequence of causing numbers of adult part-time learners to plummet.33 And despite the growing urgency of upskilling and retraining, both the 2012–17 Employer Ownership of Skills Pilot and the 2017–20 National Retraining Scheme concluded with minimal impact, and at significant taxpayer expense.34 Of course, changes in government and the cycle of Spending Review bidding will inevitably result in old policies being discarded and new ones adopted. But we regret that the substantial churn of adult education initiatives has worked against the implementation of a coherent, long-term strategic vision for adult education.

14.We heard of the importance of developing a culture of lifelong learning, where a flexible learning model allows adults to ‘hop on and hop off’ learning opportunities and build up towards a qualification.35 Evidence from the Institutes of Adult Learning, a network of nine specialist adult education colleges, told us:

The education system is geared towards most people’s learning taking place before the age of 25 (or considerably sooner in many cases) with only occasional (if any) returns to formal or structured learning later in life. We need a system–and a national culture–which facilitates learning at any age.36

Moving towards a culture of lifelong learning will require funding, and the new £2.5 billion National Skills Fund offers a significant opportunity for a large-scale, sustained transformation to adult skills and lifelong learning. But more is needed than simply a new pot of funding. To get the most out of the National Skills Fund, decisions on expenditure must be underpinned by a well-defined, strategic vision of the role and purpose of ASALL in the 21st century. Just over one hundred years ago, the Ministry of Reconstruction published its landmark 1919 report, setting out its vision of adult education as “a permanent national necessity, an inseparable aspect of citizenship … both universal and lifelong.”37 Today, we believe an ambition on a similar scale is needed.

15.Government policy on adult skills and lifelong learning has tended to be short-term, piecemeal, and initiative-led. The result has been a substantial churn of adult education initiatives which has worked against the implementation of a coherent, long-term strategic vision for adult education. Adult skills and lifelong learning is a clear strategic priority, yet participation in adult education is at its lowest rate for 23 years.

16.The Department must set out an ambitious, long-term strategy for adult skills and lifelong learning. This must be a comprehensive and holistic vision for ASALL in its entirety—piecemeal adjustments and one-off initiatives will not deliver the reform needed. These reforms must be underpinned by a shift to more flexible, modular learning so that adults can ‘hop on and hop off’ learning pathways. And we will need much better careers advice to help adults find the best learning opportunities for them.

We identify four key pillars to this strategy:

i.First, the Department must ensure there is a community learning centre in every town to ensure the first rung of the ladder is there for adults furthest from qualifications and employment.

ii.Second, the Department must kickstart participation by introducing Individual Learning Accounts, so that every adult has choice and agency over their learning.

iii.Third, the Government must restore part-time higher education by instating fee grants for part-time learners from the most disadvantaged backgrounds who study courses that meet the skills needs of the nation, and extend maintenance support to disadvantaged learners.

iv.Fourth, the Government must tackle the decline in employer-led training through the introduction of a skills tax credit for employers who invest in training for their workforce.

Information, advice and guidance

17.Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority rightly highlighted that “Post-18 education should be a lifelong experience available to all irrespective of age, situation or income”.38 Yet the statistics show we are a long way from this ambition. The Learning and Work Institute highlight that 38% of adults have not participated in any learning since leaving full-time education,39 and the poorest adults with the lowest qualifications are the least likely to access adult training, despite being the group who would benefit most.40 We heard that careers advice for adults is often not good enough, and is not sufficiently impartial.41 Poor quality information, advice and guidance (IAG) poses a significant barrier to increasing and equalising participation.42 The Institutes for Adult Learning (IALs) reported that:

IAL students often tell us how random and unstructured the process of finding out about adult education courses is. Those who are participating are often those who were fortunate enough to stumble on the right piece of information at the right time.43

Similarly, The Workers’ Educational Association told us that:

Participation surveys show how difficult even those already in the education system find it to discover information about learning and funding. For anyone who is not already engaged in adult learning it is unsurprising that participation rates are dropping partly because of the paucity of information available about what’s available.44

18.Some centralised IAG is provided through the National Careers Service (NCS), which is a free advisory service for adults and young people funded by the Government. Its website acts as a signposting and course directory, there is a telephone helpline, and adults can access face-to-face support. Research commissioned by the Department found that those accessing NCS support are more likely to spend time in education or training in the six months after support is received, although there is no information on the suitability or quality of the learning received.45 Written evidence submitted to our inquiry supporting the need for a centralised IAG platform to exist, but identified a number of limitations.46 The Association of Colleges told us that the NCS excludes “hard to reach potential learners who might lack the ability, knowledge and-or resources to engage with the service.”47 The Workers’ Educational Association noted that that the profile of adult learning on the NCS is low, and “much more needs to be done to provide vastly improved IAG to help learners find out about opportunities.”48

19.Dr Pember, policy director for HOLEX, told us that the National Careers Service “needs to be larger, bigger, more reach and very local … it needs to be about guidance and it needs to be about handholding to get that person into that exact provision that would suit them. ”49 Written evidence from HOLEX further suggested that the NCS “should have local arms based in Adult Community Services and these arms should be expanded to include a mentorship service as well as imparting information.”50 Written evidence from the Institute of Directors suggested that “local, combined authorities and LEPs should more broadly play a role in promoting and raising awareness of the different training options available in their local area.”51 Similarly, the Local Government Association advocated:

Co-designing the development of a locally relevant careers advice offer for young people and adults and the progressive devolution of the Careers and Enterprise Company and National Careers Service funding.52

20.An important theme that emerged during this inquiry was the need for an effective communication strategy to bring together all the strands of funding, entitlements and area-based provision. Witnesses were optimistic that with improved promotion, it would be possible to successfully deliver a national lifelong learning strategy.53 Dr Pember suggested that “an advertising campaign to tell adults what this Government has on offer for them would be quite simple and effective, because one of the main issues with participation is that adults do not know what is on offer”.54

21.We suggested to Minister Keegan, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Apprenticeships and Skills, that the quality of information, advice and guidance for adults is not strong enough and not sufficiently impartial. The Minister agreed that careers advice is “absolutely a key part that we have to get right and improve. It is not good enough today”.55 We note that the Government has committed to investing an extra £32 million in the National Careers Service over the next two years, with the aim of meeting increased demand for advice on training and work for those affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.56 The additional investment is welcome, and support for workers affected by the Covid-19 pandemic is a clear short-term priority, but this does not negate the need for a long-term overhaul of IAG.

22.Adults need clear and impartial advice and support on learning and funding. The National Careers Service is limited and overly centralised, particularly given the extent to which ASALL provision is now devolved. A far more proactive approach to promoting and communicating statutory entitlements and local offers is needed. 38% of adults have not participated in any learning since leaving full-time education—simply waiting and hoping that this group will decide to engage with the National Careers Service is clearly not the basis of an effective strategy.

23.The Department must devolve National Careers Service funding to enable local and combined authorities and local enterprise partnerships to co-design and promote locally relevant information, advice and guidance. The National Careers Service should provide more robust data on employment and learning outcomes to enable adults to make more informed decisions about their learning and development. The Department must also fund an advertising campaign to promote awareness of statutory entitlements.

The need for flexible and modular learning

There is also a long-standing problem in the way that the current funding rules focus on full qualifications and on people taking them for the first time. This does not reflect the needs of adults in a rapidly evolving labour market with changing technology. There needs to be a flexibility to provide a modular-unitised approach to adult learning allowing adults to access the learning they need to progress within their current job roles or to help them move to other jobs throughout their working lives.57 (Association of Colleges)

24.Written evidence argued that a shift towards modular, credit-based qualifications is increasingly necessary.58 A ‘hop on and hop off’ approach to lifelong learning would enable adults with busy working lives and caring responsibilities to build up to a qualification over time. Enabling adults to learn and train in a more modular way would also help eliminate the time barrier to adult learning. Research commissioned by the Department identified time as the most commonly cited barrier to adult learning, selected by 52% of respondents.59 The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) highlighted that this could be particularly beneficial for raising participation in higher technical qualifications at levels 4 and 5.60 The City and Guilds Group suggested that:

There are not enough qualifications which can be taken in a modular approach or on a part time basis for those who work, and who will need to upgrade, update or even change their skill to remain employed, to enable choice and clear progression pathways.61

25.We asked witnesses how a more modular and flexible skills system would enhance retraining. Professor Fraser told us that there is “more and more of a call for bite size learning” and suggested that the Department will need to:

[…] incentivise providers—universities, colleges, adult education providers of all varieties—to create modular pieces and encourage them through policy to stack and combine those in innovative ways to create pathways through is very important.62

We are pleased that the Government recently announced that as part of its new Lifetime Skills Guarantee, higher education loans would be made more flexible, allowing courses to be taken in segments.63 While the details are yet to be provided, we believe this is the right reform and would like to see a more modular offer for skills at all levels. We note that Greater Manchester Combined Authority has already moved in this direction, and are using their devolved AEB to provide:

[…] funded units of advanced training and education at level 3 alongside relevant L2 qualifications, particularly linked to priority sectors, a flexibility designed to help people progress in work by improving, refreshing and updating their skills without needing to complete a full qualification.64

26.The ability to study bite-size modules rather than commit to full qualifications is a much-needed reform that will make it easier for adults to upskill and retrain. Developing qualifications that can be taken in modules will enable adults with busy working lives and caring responsibilities to build up qualifications over time and ensure their skills stay relevant in a changing job market.

27.We recommend the Department work with the relevant sector bodies to develop a modular offer for skills qualifications at all levels. This should be linked to those qualifications and courses which meet the skills needs of the nation. The Department must also work with the sector to devise a funding approach that makes it economically viable for colleges and other providers to offer module-based learning.

22 Institute for Fiscal Studies. 2018 annual report on education spending in England. 17 September 2018

23 Learning and Work Institute, Adult Participation in Learning Survey 2019, December 2019.

24 Ibid.

25 Q1

27 Department for Education. Adult education survey 2016: Research report. June 2018

28 National Institute of Adult Continuing Education. Adult Participation in Learning Survey: Headline Findings. March 2015.

29 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Building Skills for All: A Review of England: Policy insights from the survey of adult skills. February 2016

31 Engineering and Construction Industry Training Board (ASL0048) Session 2017–19

32 National Audit Office. Individual Learning Accounts. March 2002

33 Callendar, C. & Thompson, J. The Lost Part-timers, The Sutton Trust, 15 March 2018

34 A Department evaluation of the £350 million Employer Ownership of Skills Pilot found “no evidence” that the programme had an impact on employer attitudes to training. The National Retraining Scheme was a £100 million programme announced in 2017, intended to help adults retrain into better jobs and prepare them for future changes such as automation. The programme did not get further than its pilot phase.

35 Q100. See also: UCL Institute of Education (ASL0024) Session 2017–19; Institutes for Adult Learning (ASL0057) Session 2017–19; KPMG LLP (ASL0062) Session 2017–19

36 Institutes for Adult Learning (ASL0057) Session 2017–19

37 Ministry of Reconstruction, Adult Education Committee. Final Report. 1919

38 Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority (ASL0007) Session 2019–21

39 Learning and Work Institute. Adult Participation in Learning Survey 2019. December 2019

41 Young Women’s Trust (ASL0022) Session 2017–19; Q51

42 See, for example: Workers’ Educational Association (ASL0009) Session 2019–21; Birkbeck University (ASL0002) Session 2019–21; MillionPlus (ASL0026) Session 2017–19; LTE Group (ASL0043) Session 2017–19

43 Institutes for Adult Learning (ASL0057) Session 2017–19

44 Workers’ Educational Association (ASL0009) Session 2019–21

46 See for example: HOLEX (ASL0003) Session 2019–21; the Open University (ASL0005) Session 2019–21; University and College Union (ASL0023) Session 2017–19; Institutes for Adult Learning (ASL0057) Session 2017–19

47 Association of Colleges (ASL0001) Session 2019–21

48 Workers’ Educational Association (ASL0009) Session 2019–21

50 HOLEX (ASL0003) Session 2019–21

51 Institute of Directors (ASL0040) Session 2017–19

52 Local Government Association (ASL0012) Session 2017–19

56 Her Majesty’s Treasury. A plan for Jobs. Policy Paper. 8 July 2020

58 See for example: Universities UK (ASL0028) Session 2017–19; LTE Group (ASL0043) Session 2017–19; City and Guilds Group (ASL0047) Session 2017–19; The Sutton Trust (ASL0060) Session 2017–19; Tees Valley Combined Authority (ASL0006) Session 2019–21

59 Department for Education. Adult Education Survey 2016: Research report. June 2018

60 CBI (ASL0075) Session 2017–19

61 The City and Guilds group (ASL0047) Session 2017–19

64 Greater Manchester Combined Authority (ASL0004) Session 2019–21

Published: 19 December 2020 Site information    Accessibility statement