Who will speak up for adult education?
Revitalising adult education is the sector’s new leadership challenge, writes Sue Pember
For those of us in the know, adult education is key to Britain’s future success. But why is it such a secret? We don’t hide it; in fact, it’s in our DNA to share, but it seems no-one really listens. For example, since the Brexit vote, more and more politicians talk about training and retraining our citizens and, in the Conservative general election manifesto, we were teased with the concept of a national retraining scheme. You would think they had listened and acted. But, in fact, nothing has changed. Adult education budgets are still being cut and the fantastic work on community engagement and getting reluctant learners into education is maligned. The experts talk of the link between Level 4 and productivity but most refuse to admit and comment on the connection between personal fulfilment through education and increased productivity.
Brexit is the greatest leadership challenge facing our country since 1945. This, coupled with the legacy of a workforce with poor basic skills, provides the context for at least eight specific challenges which can be solved and/or supported by an increased focus on adult education. We are doing much of this now but it needs to be scaled up to meet the magnitude of the challenge.
With an increased level of focus and resource, adult education can:
- raise productivity through improving employee’s basic skills – we still have a situation where one in five of our workforce has low English and maths skills;
- strengthen community cohesion by providing guidance, support and a place for communities to learn new skills together;
- increase social mobility through providing induction and stepping-stones programmes that lead to qualifications and the progression route to further study and improved job prospects;
- reduce unemployment and inactivity by identifying and supporting people back into education as a pathway to work;
- enhance progression into well-paid jobs through providing retraining schemes when and where people need them;
- extend working lives by allowing the older person to learn new skills such as IT;
- tackle health and mental health issues through providing a protected environment to gain confidence, self-esteem and new skills;
- attract future inward investment – adult education can provide the skilled workforce which, in turn, encourages international businesses to set up here.
Looking on the bright side, even with the lack of resource in recent years we still have a community learning infrastructure in England of which we can be proud. Driven by self-leadership, adult and community learning providers continue to educate and reskill over 600,000 learners annually and are able to demonstrate they are the best educators. Ofsted grades last year show that 80 per cent who were inspected were ‘good’ and student feedback is excellent. These providers are efficient, using their state funding to generate fees and co-funding. They are fleet of foot and move where the need is, whether it be to support a new developing community or an employer having to make staff redundant. They are not hampered by having to keep big buildings going or layers of costly managers and overheads. They are student and community centred, professional, well qualified and determined. They are our unsung heroes and, by hook or by crook, we need to create the political circumstances for them to use their skills and knowledge to educate and retrain more adults. This is the new sector leadership challenge. If we don’t speak up who will?
We should recognise and praise the renewed focus on apprenticeships. The apprenticeship levy and programme (once it has got over its teething problems) will be a step change but it very much looks like it could be turned into a graduate and post-graduate scheme. This in itself isn’t a bad thing but, with limited resource, what about those with poor skills and no qualifications? What’s going to be there for them?
If we are to grow and prosper after Brexit, we need more than an apprenticeship programme, we need the Chancellor to set out a comprehensive adult education, skills and employment funding plan designed to grow our own resident workforce, whoever they are and whichever country they originate from.
Adult education must be central to a growing our own strategy. It is for the sector to lead, to demonstrate a renewed confidence, foster new advocates and publicise what we know works.
Sue Pember is Director of Policy and External Relations at HOLEX, the lead body for adult community learning and education in England. She has extensive experience of teaching and leading adult education services and has worked in colleges, local education authorities and government, where she was Director for Adult and Further Education in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.