There is increasing recognition of the critical role Lifelong Learning (inclusive of Further, Sixth Form, Adult, Community, Vocational and Offender provision) has to play in inclusion and the social, cultural and economic wellbeing of the UK nations and beyond; particularly in the crucial process of post-Covid reconstruction.

However, the Lifelong Learning sector has for too long been constrained in supporting a narrowly defined skills-based agenda by policy makers across the political spectrum, and is insufficiently understood (especially by too many legislators across the political spectrum), as the sector for ‘other people’s children’.  There is an extent to which politicians should have the sympathy of FE teachers: many MPs suffered the dual educational disadvantages of attending both ‘elite’ private schools and Oxbridge, so their life experience has been significantly impoverished.  Nevertheless, like Health and Social Care, Lifelong Learning should be a non-partisan national priority, and its historic underfunding and undervaluing must be corrected.

In 2015 I co-edited, with Maire Daley and Professor Kevin Orr, Further Education and the Twelve Dancing Princesses: an attempt to challenge the dreary, deficit fairy tale metaphor for FE as the Cinderella sector.  Generally attributed to Kenneth Baker, Minister of Education under Margaret Thatcher, subsequent education ministers from the Left and the Right were equally enthusiastic fairy story tellers. Alan Johnson argued that New Labour had ‘buried forever the understandable description of further education as the “Cinderella” of the education world’; David Blunkett suggested that whilst the ‘sector was once regarded as the Cinderella sector… we now have a sector that is growing not only in confidence but also in achievement.’ Similarly the Skills Minister John Hayes identified ‘clear signs that something I’ve always hoped for is starting to happen, FE and skills are no longer the Cinderella’; and the then Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove donned his Fairy Godmother wings to celebrate that ‘FE colleges do wonderful work. For too long, they have been Cinderellas, but under this government they are at last going to the ball’.

Clearly politicians are dazzled by Cinderella’s glittering glass slipper, using it to illustrate sectoral deficits, and to suggest that FE’s prince has come at last.  But the reality is that funding for adult education has collapsed since Incorporation.  Radical reform is urgently required.  In particular the creation of a flexible and equitable funding system for adult education (encompassing providers and learners) is imperative; and should include a reversal of the vandalism inflicted on workplace learning due to the removal of Union Learn funds.  In addition, financial support for all students to eradicate digital poverty, alleviate hardship and improve access to further and adult education must be established.

In relation to teacher pay in FE the reintroduction of national pay scales for professionals which reflect teaching salaries across the educational sectors is overdue.  Salaries and working conditions have been progressively undermined; and professionalism has been weakened by the inexplicable decision to scrap mandatory teaching qualifications for lecturers, leaving many new teachers struggling in the early years of their careers.  There has also been insufficient attention paid to the wider well-being and professional learning of FE staff, and we must be clear that this in not just an industrial relations issue: the working conditions of lecturers in the sector are the de facto learning environment of our students.

Finally, a reconfiguration of the relative roles of national, regional and local government in the provision and governance of adult education is required.  It has been clear for many years that the post-Incorporation model has failed, and a local and regional steer for adult education must again be a key feature of the sector.

It is time for Lifelong Learning’s cinders to be reignited.

Joel Petrie has worked in post compulsory education for over 20 years.  With Maire Daley and Professor Kevin Orr he co-edited Further Education and the Twelve Dancing Princesses, and its sequel The Principal: Power and Professionalism in FE.  The third in the Dancing Princesses trilogy – Caliban’s Dance: FE after the Tempestwas published by UCL Press in autumn 2020.