There is a particular problem for those of us who are involved in delivering adult education. Government investment has been cut by more than half since 2010.

The impact of these cuts has been far reaching. Colleges are increasingly funded to support young people. Charities like the WEA struggle to find funding and to invest in the future, eg through online and flexible learning, and the consequences are reduced educational opportunity for adults who are unemployed, for the low skilled, for those who want to access learning later in life and for those who need to up skill whilst still working.

To quote a WEA student ‘We have forgotten that everyone is important, deserves to be fulfilled at work and have another go at education whatever their age or situation.’ As a result, there is a vast sea of talent that we are not accessing.

We are starting with a deficit model.

Over the last 10 years there has been a 61% fall in the numbers of part time learners, most of them over 21. Government policy for FE and HE has been largely focussed on young people and is, in effect, shifting the burden of funding for adults to Metropolitan and local authorities, employers and individuals. Whilst the devolution of the Adult Education Budget to the local level is already creating positive changes and opportunities, it does not change the overall picture of national priorities which are underfunded, and major gaps in the kinds of education and skills that are provided by our current model. Nor does it address the balance of funding issues with only 1.6% of the Education and Skills budget being devoted to adult learners over 24 who are not in formal education or on an apprenticeship scheme.

Over the past 12 years average real wages have gone up by a princely 65p a week – apparently our worst economic performance in 200 years. No wonder people are feeling the pinch and increasingly abandoned. All these problems have become more visible and critical because of Covid and will leave a toxic legacy for years to come.

Many adults in the workforce do not have the further and higher-level skills they need and a significant minority lack basic digital skills as well as level two skills or qualifications in English and Maths. Employer investment in training has also declined in real terms over the last 10 years and, with growing numbers of unemployed and people on low incomes, major new investment from these sources is unlikely.

The consequences for our economy and society are serious. Skill shortages are not a surprise – they are completely predictable. Skill shortages pre-dated the pandemic and now that we have rapidly rising levels of unemployment,  access to affordable education and the demand for retraining are likely to accelerate. Brexit and Covid related issues will add further pressure on the public purse, and on publicly funded providers, so we need to be clear about our priorities. Building on analysis that has already been published by the Centenary Commission report in 2019 and the very recent report of the House of Commons, Education Committee Report, ‘A plan for an adult skills and lifelong learning revolution’, we have developed a short list of actions we believe should be top of the list:

Top of our list are:-

– delivering against the commitment to basic level 2 skills entitlement for everyone in English, Maths and Digital, identifying gaps and closing them. This action alone would make a contribution to the levelling up agenda

– establishing learning hubs in every community – using current infrastructure and resources in schools, colleges and universities as places to learn for adults as well as young people.

– ensuring that all school leavers, college and university graduates have access to employability skills and careers advice.

– delivering technical and vocational study options in schools from age 14. T levels should be available as soon as possible in schools and colleges.

Regarding funding:

– English, Maths and Digital skills need to be funded nationally

– a national adult learner loan scheme should be developed for those wishing to achieve Levels 3 and above

– the ELQ rule should be abolished

– Individual Learning Accounts should be introduced
– quality should be ensured through current publicly accountable bodies

– clear responsibility for delivery should be delegated as close to the coal face as possible within our delivery networks

– a national report should be prepared annually for the Secretary of State on the state of the adult learning sector, outcomes achieved and further resourcing requirements.

Regional and local budgets for adult learners would continue and innovative practices shared in the learning hubs. The devolved AEB budget should be ring fenced and used to top up where there are skill shortages or severe educational disadvantages, in addition to those listed above.

Overall we need an all age education service which genuinely engages the majority of UK citizens in education and which matches the needs of our economy and society. We cannot take a “make do and mend” approach when we need radical changes to the way our system works, continuing to underfund the educational and training needs of the working population.