Lifelong learning has undergone a prolonged period of neglect. The last decade has seen funding for adult education and skills slashed by billions of pounds in real terms, and too many potential learners find themselves locked out of the
opportunities that returning to education can bring.
This situation is simply not sustainable. Tens of millions of working-age people are not qualified to Level 3 (equivalent to A-levels) or above. These qualifications have a strong and positive impact on the wages of workers, and many of those who lack them face being stuck in low-paid, low-skilled jobs, unable to transition to new industries.
Meanwhile the Confederation of British Industry have warned that, although 75% of businesses expect to have job openings for workers with higher level skills in the coming years, more than half of all businesses (61%) are concerned that there will not be enough people to meet demand.
In the years to come as we seek to tackle the climate crisis, embrace the opportunities and meet the challenges of automation, and build the economy of the future, lifelong learning will have an essential role to play.
The Lifelong Learning Commission – an independent panel of experts drawn from across the post-16 education sector – was established to examine the barriers that prevent people from learning as adults, and consider how the National Education Service could develop a more progressive system for the future.
To inform its work, the Commission has drawn on existing evidence and invited input from all corners or the lifelong learning sector and beyond. We have made 16 recommendations which we hope will underpin a radical shift towards a fairer, more cohesive system.
Our report will not be the end of the conversation on how we make high-quality lifelong learning available to all, but it marks a bold and significant step in the new direction. Taken together, the proposals would represent the most significant expansion of lifelong learning in recent history.
The Commission is firmly of the view that lifelong learning is a social justice issue. Increasing opportunities to participate in education across our lifetimes is a social and public good that can be shared by all members of society – as well as improving health, happiness and social cohesion.
To realise the potential of lifelong learning in supporting social justice, we need a significant, wide-reaching and long-term shift in how we approach it as a society. For too long lifelong learning has suffered from a lack of support and leadership at the heart of government. Shunted between departments and ministers, across governments of all stripes this vital policy area has never been a genuine priority.
Embedding lifelong learning across the government’s policy agenda and establishing clear mechanisms to support strategic, evidence-based policy making will be central to a successful approach.
To ensure that the diverse needs of learners are effectively met, and promote long term engagement in learning, we also need to move towards a much more collaborative model of delivery. Building a social partnership model where government (at all levels), providers, employers, trade unions and other local organisations that support learning all have a stake in the system will be key to underpinning the shift in approach.
• Introduce a public duty for all policymakers to consider the impact of their policies on lifelong learning and social justice, and develop plans which contribute to the fulfilment of the aims of the National Education Service.
• Introduce an overarching, independent strategic body to coordinate activity across the National Education Service.
• Develop a stronger national framework to streamline regulation and facilitate collaboration between trusted providers.
• Require providers in receipt of public funding to set out principles for partnership working and collaboration with other providers and relevant stakeholders.
• Encourage a shift towards lifetime enrolment in learning, supported by groups of providers working in partnership
• Introduce a universal, publicly-funded right to learn through life, underpinned by a minimum entitlement to fully-funded local level 3 provision and the equivalent of 6 years’ publicly-funded credits at level 4 and above, with additional support for priority groups.
• Examine models of credit accumulation and transfer (CAT) which support people to accumulate and transfer achievements whilst ensuring quality and recognising that not all learning is qualification based.
• Work with employers and trade unions to introduce a right to paid time off for training.
• Introduce a national, NES-branded Information, Advice and Guidance service
which is available both face-to-face and online, sited where possible within the local community, and underpinned by a professionally trained workforce which operates under a common framework and nationally agreed standards.
• Develop a personalised digital platform which allows learners to track the use of their learning entitlements and engage with providers, other learners and related services including careers advice and guidance.
• Develop means-tested maintenance support for adults to facilitate access to learning.
• Explore how to better support progression to postgraduate study as part of a broader approach to research and development spending and industrial strategy.
• Develop a package of support for building education and training capacity within employers, to include a national ‘train the trainers’ programme.
• Promote the integration of local skills, innovation and industrial strategies, and explore how mechanisms for localities signing off on employers’ skills development plans can be used to improve integration and accountability.
• Review the effectiveness of the current corporation tax relief in leveraging skills investment, and consider how tax relief might be extended to smaller employers – for example through R&D tax credits.
• Place a renewed focus on improving the conditions of staff in the lifelong learning sector, linking providers’ labour standards to their eligibility for funding.