Lifelong access to education is at the core of the creation of a more equal, fair, and productive society. It is this principle upon which the Right2Learn campaign was founded. Our long-term vision is clear, but we wanted to provide practical assistance in the here and now to politicians and policy makers as they grapple with the biggest social and economic challenges in a generation. So, at Christmas 2020, we began a consultation with our supporters on what principles they felt should underpin government policy with the aim of enabling us to constructively judge newly announced proposals.
The consultation produced five themes: break down barriers; integrate and coordinate; devolve and empower; tackle inequality and meet community needs; invest and promote.
1. Break down barriers
Our supporters want an end to the silos that dominate education. The need to learn is lifelong and the demand from users is for seamless access to learning opportunities. Yet the contrasting approaches adopted by policymakers where delivering schooling, further and higher education are concerned create a chaotic and often incoherent offer which is not well understood by those who need it most. We await with keen interest the much-vaunted Further Education (FE) White Paper from the Westminster government. However, what we really need is something far bigger and transformational. It is essential that additional resources are provided for FE. These resources need to be genuinely additional – not funds already announced or allocated. But to realise the full potential of FE, a vision of a coherent lifelong education system is needed that connects it with schools, universities, adult learning institutes and continuing education units – a dynamic and responsive lifelong learning infrastructure for the post-Covid world. A new national, lifelong learning strategy is required founded on parity of esteem, opportunities and approaches to funding.
2. Integrate and coordinate
A key theme of the responses was the role of government in encouraging the coordination of lifelong learning across the whole range of public services including the education sector. Our supporters believe that as the primary funder of public services, the government is uniquely placed to take direct steps to build this integrated offer. In order to perform this role the barriers between the Department of Education and other ministries need to be broken down. A straightforward way of integrating lifelong learning across education, health, welfare and other services would be to make funding and accreditation from the taxpayer conditional upon cooperative participation in a local lifelong learning offer. Such an offer would be strengthened if local authorities were given the primary role in coordinating and promoting it.
3. Devolve and empower
The stark lesson for policymakers of COVID-19 is that an overly centralised approach which overrides the views of local communities and ignores their expertise will stutter or fail. This has been seen in the responses to directly tackling the virus and also addressing effectively its myriad consequences.
Our supporters see a key role for government in clearly setting the terms of national policy, incentivising and encouraging publicly funded institutions to cooperate with each other and to engage effectively in facilitating lifelong learning. BUT we believe it is for local communities to deliver the strategy in a way which is democratically accountable and focused upon both immediate and long-term needs. High quality learning opportunities should be present where they are most needed and where they will make most difference but also organised and shaped at this level. This approach will mean more localised investment, not less as some proponents of devolution suggest.
4. Tackle inequality and meet community needs
It is a given for our supporters that education policy should start from meeting the needs of the communities it serves. The pandemic has illustrated how these needs differ. From spiralling youth unemployment, to threats to major sectors such as aviation and small businesses across the country, a devolved and integrated approach is the only way that these differing needs can be met.
Serving the community means not privileging private schools or the educational needs of one class over another. Across communities we know access to learning is profoundly unequal. Those with the fewest initial qualifications are inevitably always those who face the toughest barriers to reconnecting with learning. The pandemic will only deepen these inequalities. Providing localised, accessible opportunities that are supported by employers and the state is essential. Those who find it hardest to engage need the economic security to be able to make the steps back into learning. Providing learning that is free at the point of use or loans to enable participation is not enough here. Potential learners who have been disenfranchised by the system have to be certain that participating in learning will not jeopardise their job or source of income. They also need to be listened to, in order to shape their learning, and given the means of accessing higher education or apprenticeship, through fair and transparent admission systems.
5. Invest and promote
Our supporters recognise the uniqueness of the situation now facing the UK. There is much rhetoric about the need to ensure the future is fairer and that there is ‘levelling up’ . However, it is impossible to see how this can be achieved without greater investment. Right2Learn emphatically rejects the idea that simply redistributing existing resources, from HE to FE for example, is the solution. We believe the central problem our society has is that millions of people are shut out from a right to learn and prevented from fulfilling their potential.
Focusing additional investment effectively, means supporting new mechanisms for learners to engage flexibly with education and training. Would be learners need to be able to have chances, in the globalised and digital 21st century, to reskill for new careers and their futures, not simply to satisfy the existing requirements of their current employers. There are models and frameworks in place that could provide the strategies to accommodate this, for example most notably in the credit transfer and accumulation formats of the Open University.
Any new investment will not bring dividends though unless there is also major investment in a comprehensive, national Information, Advice and Guidance (IAG) service which is closely integrated with local advice services based in the communities they serve. Here, as in the other themes and priorities already laid out, the principles of subsidiarity and progression should be respected. Micro-management from Whitehall or government will not bring the transformation needed to create a nation of lifelong learners.