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A new era of Night Schools will equip our workers for the jobs and opportunities of the future

3 min read

As automation transforms the world of work, a Labour government must invest in adult education, bring back Night Schools and open up opportunity for all who want to develop and grow, writes David Lammy MP

One hundred years ago, Britain was in profound crisis following the five grim years of the First World War. Envisaging trouble in the decades ahead, as well as looming technological change, Prime Minister Lloyd George’s Ministry of Reconstruction produced a ground-breaking 1919 report on Adult Education.

It set out a plan to educate citizens throughout their life, not just for “personal, domestic and vocational duties” but also for their “duties of citizenship”. Only a publicly-funded adult education service would guarantee Britons had the necessary skills to find work and the collective wisdom to resist the allure of populist demagoguery in the upcoming years of change. It concluded that lifelong adult education was not a luxury, but a national necessity.

The parallels with today’s ongoing technological revolution and populist resurgence are obvious. Automation threatens 1.5 million workers’ jobs, according to the ONS. Checkout workers, cab drivers, truck drivers, farm workers, accountants, legal clerks, factory workers, bike fixers, and telephone operators are just some of those whose jobs may soon be filled by machines and artificial intelligence.

Meanwhile, a re-branded version of the hard-right nationalist populism which emerged after the First World War – again blaming the effects of technological change on migrants, foreigners and distant institutions – is growing in popularity across Britain, the rest of Europe and the United States.

Lengthening life expectancy and an ever-rising pension age will make 50-year careers normal. Yet rather than investing in adult education, the British government has systematically dismantled it. Between 2010 and 2018, government funding for adult learning and apprenticeships was chopped nearly in half. One of the greatest losses over this period, and indeed during the decades before it, has been the closure of Night Schools. There number of adult learners has dropped to a 20 year low.

The power of adult learning is not an abstract concept to me. I doubt I would ever have become an MP if my own mother, Rose, had not enrolled at a night school, where she spent two evenings a week, in between multiple low-skilled jobs. In the 60s and 70s, night classes bloomed in all sorts of skills: from typing to car repair and accounting. Mum was able to graduate from the local college with a City & Guilds certificate in Pitman Shorthand. This allowed her to get a job on the bottom rung of Haringey council as a secretary. Thirty years later, she retired as a manager. This one evening course made it possible for my mum to raise three children on her own – and become an inspiration to each of us.

A new era of night schools would not offer the same courses on Mum’s old college timetable, but equip adult learners with new skills to flourish and switch careers in an age of automation. Classes in how to work with technology and data will be vital, as well as others offering ways to develop soft-skills with which robots cannot compete.

Too often our debate on education is centred on university education. Social mobility from parents to their children is glorified as the ultimate goal. This is a gross failure of half of the population, who do not spend three years in dorms, student unions and lecture halls, but want to progress. Instead of a narrow focus on social mobility between generations, let’s invest more into social justice that opens opportunities for all adults who want to develop and grow. Bringing back Night Schools is how we can equip workers with the skills to get the jobs of the future. Adult education is once again a national necessity.

David Lammy is Labour MP for Tottenham

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