Blogs + think pieces

Farewell, further education for adults?

22nd November 2017

The narrow emphasis on skills and ‘employer-led’ in FE has been little short of disastrous for adult participation. We need a balanced curriculum for adults, just as we do for education as a whole, writes John Holford

Do you remember lifelong learning? Twenty years ago it was all the rage. It’s essential, everyone said – international organisations such as the EU and the OECD, British governments Tory and Labour alike, business organisations, the CBI, trade unions. Just about everyone who knew anything knew that in the flexible, globalised world of the future, people would have to learn new things throughout their lives. We needed a learning economy, a learning society. Tony Blair’s New Labour government even called its 1997 policy document The Learning Age.

And for a while, things looked pretty good. Eleven per cent of adults participated in ‘learning’ in 1994, according to the EU statistics agency. Ten years later, it was 29 per cent. Though Eurostat labelled that particular UK figure ‘low reliability’, it put us clearly at the top of the European league – outstripping even the Scandinavian countries, with their long traditions of adult education.

But, sadly, 2004 was as good as it got. Since then UK adult learning participation has been in freefall. By 2016 we were back down to just over 14 per cent participation. As the AoC told us in May – based on government figures – the number of adults involved in learning has fallen by over a million in a decade: from 2.66 million in 2005/06 to 1.61 million in 2015/16.

How on earth did we manage this? One’s first thought is to blame the recession – people and employers with less to spend on education and training. Austerity bites. But other recession-hit countries in Europe have done much better. In fact, participation in adult learning across the EU as a whole has actually risen since 2008, albeit only a little.

It may sound unpatriotic to some, it’s certainly unpalatable, but the much more likely truth is this: we in England have made a right hash of things (I single out England because, since devolution, the Scots and Welsh have managed to protect themselves from the worst lunacies of Whitehall think-tankery).

Not so long ago, English adult education was the envy of the world. The adult education profession may have been quite small. It was spread too thinly across rather diverse fields in further education, local authorities, and a range of organisations with endearing (even antediluvian) names such as the WEA and university extra-mural departments. But its band of dedicated professionals had real expertise; not only in teaching adults, but in the essentials of getting hard-to-reach adults to engage with learning in the first place – community outreach, widening participation, access, and so forth.

Then, in 2004, the Labour government appointed the Lord Leitch – a former Chief Executive of Zurich Financial Services – to head up an inquiry. Two years later, we got the Leitch Review of Skills, Prosperity for All in the Global Economy – World Class Skills. The UK must become ‘a world leader in skills by 2020’, it said. This meant a ‘focus on economically valuable skills’ that ‘provide real returns … in the labour market for individuals and employers’, and ‘strengthening the voice of employers’.

Since then, ‘employer-led’ has become the mantra in FE – and, of course, the entire sector is now labelled ‘skills’. Colleges have been encouraged – ‘incentivised’ – to see employer needs as core to their raison d’être. But has it worked?

According to the AoC, the number of adult apprentices rose by around 500,000 in the decade after Leitch (with a 61 per cent fall in starts over the Apprenticeship Levy’s first three months, even this achievement seems unlikely to last).[1] Yet the price of half a million more apprentices has been a million fewer adults learning. Across FE, the capacity to provide learning to adults outside the apprenticeship context has been radically damaged.

Of course, the attack on adult provision in England did not begin with Leitch. Its tropes are well-worn. Too many classes for adults are just ‘leisure learning’: ‘flower arranging’ for ‘middle class ladies’.  Public money has to be properly spent, and what really matters is skills that get people into work, or make them (or their employers) more competitive in global markets.

What these tropes miss is that a learning society cannot be built by bullying people into one kind of learning. A learning society involves learning for work, to be sure. But it also involves learning for personal growth, and to be good citizens. We need a balanced curriculum for adults, just as we do in education as a whole.

I suppose we shouldn’t lay all the blame for the collapse in British adult learning on Lord Leitch. No doubt there is more to it than that. But the coincidence – Leitch let loose in 2004, the year of peak participation, and pretty steady decline since then – is arresting.

John Holford is Robert Peers Professor of Adult Education at the University of Nottingham

[1] https://feweek.co.uk/2017/10/12/breaking-first-official-apprenticeship-levy-figures-show-a-61-fall-in-starts/

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