Every politician from Boris Johnson to Joe Biden is now calling for us to ‘build back better’. But the phrase will be empty if our society does not grasp the opportunity to address the inequality caused and exacerbated by unfair access to education.
Those born into the right place at the right time often enjoy a seamless, privileged journey from school to university to a series of well paid, secure jobs. For millions of others, life is far from linear and orderly.
Take Marie, now a star of Rob Smith and Vicky Duckworth’s inspiring Transforming Lives project which documents the challenges people overcome to return to education. She worked as a machinist in a factory and it was only after the breakdown of her relationship and loss of her job that she returned hesitantly to study.
Marie now says: ‘when I think about my life and how it was before I went back to education I can’t believe I was that person. I have to catch my breath sometimes at how lucky I am and I dread to think where me and my children would be if not for my learning.’
It is of course people like Marie from those communities already ‘left behind’ and ‘levelled down’ who will also suffer the greatest pain from the unprecedented economic shock of Covid-19.
Traditionally many of those who struggled with education early in life or find themselves needing new skills would have gained access to what they need from adult education programmes run locally by local colleges, councils and charities. These programmes do still exist, just. However huge, damaging cuts in government funding have seen four million less adults participate in education of any kind since 2010.
The Right2Learn campaign that we have helped to launch with support from across the world of education and politics, is about reversing this self defeating spiral of cuts and making the case for investment in all our people whatever their age and circumstance. We are calling for a new legal right to learn across the generations, properly funded and backed by effective information, advice and guidance.
Creating this right and backing it up with real investment will be a life belt for many of those communities who are struggling most this year.
That is why we believe that the ‘right to learn’ is an idea whose time has come. As former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, one of our campaign’s first supporters, has said: “more than ever the right to learn must be championed by all.” That urgency surely reflects the need, after Covid-19, to do better by those who need us most.
We know that education is not a magic economic bullet to solve all of society’s ills but fair access to it really can change peoples’ lives. Chryssa, another remarkable woman from the Transforming Lives project, overcame huge difficulties to return to study and now – armed with a degree – says: ‘learning is like therapy for me. It helped me overcome mental health issues and gave me the motivation to keep going. I am a better person because I was lucky enough to be able to continue learning throughout my adult life.’
The Right2Learn campaign is for the millions like Marie and Chryssa for whom ‘Build Back Better’ must become a reality and not a pipe dream.’
Professor Vicky Duckworth and Matt Waddup are founder members of the Right2Learn campaign.