With the Senedd Election on the horizon, Learning and Work Institute Director David Hagendyk reflects on the future of adult learning and skills in England and looks at what the future might hold for Wales.
It would be too dramatic to call it a game-changer, but the announcement by the Prime Minister of a new Lifetime Skills Guarantee in England gives us a real shot at making adult education and retraining an election issue here in Wales in May 2021.
Before I go further: yes, I know the devil will be in the detail (it always is!) and I know too that this was an England only announcement but it could be significant in benchmarking commitments from the devolved parties ahead of the Senedd elections.
At the heart of the commitment from the Prime Minister is that for England ‘adults without an A-Level or equivalent qualification will be offered a free, fully-funded college course.’ Just days before the Welsh Conservatives committed to invest in FE, expand degree apprenticeship opportunities, and create an adult learning allowance to use on a degree, technical training, or specific courses. They represent a growing recognition from the Conservatives of the role colleges and FE more broadly can play in meeting the challenges of both the post-pandemic reconstruction and the longer term challenges of demographic change and digitisation. They represent the start of a real conversation about the value of adult education and skills.
The Welsh Government has already set out a similar commitment to that of the Prime Minister, namely the development of a right to lifelong learning, but progress on the detail has stalled.
Whether it is a right to lifelong learning, a Lifetime Skills Guarantee, access to Personal Learning Accounts, or an adult learning allowance, the infrastructure that sits behind them matters more than the headline. A ‘right’ or a ‘guarantee’ are only as good as the ability of the individual to exercise them. Defining the right is a good place to start but it is vital this isn’t seen as the end point. Instead we will need a focus on the infrastructure and on the support that learners require. This must include:
- Investment in the whole system: investment in FE and adult skills is a safe bet for a good return on investment. Attainment and completion levels are good and outcomes across a range of measures stand up to scrutiny. But adult learning is an eco-system where learners need multiple entry points back into education and to progress with their studies. For some this will be a college or university, while for others it will be walking into their local community centre, logging on remotely, starting an apprenticeship, or taking a course at work for the first time. The system as a whole needs greater investment, including in community-based learning and in Essential Skills and pre-entry levels.
- A lifelong learning strategy: lift the bonnet on the adult learning and skills system and the pattern is a decade of decline in participation both here in Wales and across the UK as a whole. Investment is one step to reversing the trend, but we need a plan too. We have called for a lifelong learning strategy to bring together the activities of different providers and to ensure that the system works in a coherent way. Now more than ever this should include a big commitment on digital and blended learning (including on the digital divide), as well as wider flexible learning opportunities, clear links to the needs of local employers, and ways for learners to access advice and support. Parties should resist the temptation to go for big structural changes and instead focus on investing in quality, scaling up what works, and joining up the system.
- Act quickly and trust the sector: much of the focus over the coming months will be on the prospects for the election in May 2021. A big battle of ideas and ambition is welcome and overdue, but we need to focus too on the here and now. All the evidence points to big job losses happening now and more are on the way. If the Welsh Conservatives enter government in May then adult skills and training needs to be top of their to do list, but they should also be calling for more support now and work to ensure adults at risk of redundancy have the help they need to retrain. This isn’t a policy agenda that can wait. Urgent action is needed. The adult learning sector responded brilliantly to the early stages of the crisis and, armed with plan and the investment, the government should trust them to get on with the job and to meet the needs of the communities they serve.
What we have seen from the Conservative Party both at Westminster and here in Wales is a good start and a challenge to the other parties to set out their ideas for investment and reform. May 2021 could well be the election where adult learning and skills get the attention it deserves.
David Hagendyk, Director for Wales
Learning and Work Institute
David was appointed Director for Wales of Learning and Work Institute in March 2017 and is responsible for leading the work of the organisation in Wales and for promoting to government and service providers the value of adult learning and the need for investment and policies to raise productivity, improve progression from low pay and reduce inequality.