It’s time to get serious on lifelong learning – and ensure everyone has the chance to prosper
Government should commit to a three-part guarantee to boost lifelong learning, writes Robert Halfon MP
It may not attract the same attention as other big-ticket items in Westminster but poor access to lifelong learning is one of the great social injustices of our time. More often than not, a poor start in school means a tough ride in life. Around nine million adults in England have low literacy and/or numeracy skills. One-third of England’s 16- to 19-year-olds have low basic skills and just 33% of pupils on free school meals get five good GCSEs.
With the march of the robots fast approaching, the skills deficit is only set to widen, threatening to leave these students even farther behind. Estimates suggest that 28% of jobs taken by 16- to 24-year-olds are at risk of automation by the 2030s.
It is vital that we offer a way back, and lifelong learning provides exactly that. It is a lifeline for those who left school ill-equipped to grapple with the rough and tumble of the jobs market.
Currently, we are not doing enough to boost our offer of world-class lifelong learning. Between 2010 and 2016, the government adult skills budget in England fell by 34% in real terms.
Worse still, we are not doing enough for disadvantaged individuals; 49% of adults from the lowest socio-economic groups have received no education or training at all since they left education.
So, how can we ensure that those most vulnerable in the jobs market of today, and of tomorrow, are able to thrive?
The answer is accessible, top-notch lifelong learning. The Government should commit to a lifelong learning guarantee of three parts. First, an adult community learning guarantee, giving people with no qualifications a platform to learn again. Second, a part-time higher education guarantee to offer flexible learning. And third, an employer guarantee which would incentivise businesses to upskill their workers.
We need to start small, and local, with an adult community learning centre in every town in the country. These centres are the lifeblood of adult learning; they engage disadvantaged local communities and many courses are free. They also have a proven track-record of success, with 85% of learners finishing their courses, and average satisfaction scores are high.
We must get a better steer on what provision exists across the country. Once we have this, we can fill in the gaps. That does not need to involve funding new buildings; we can use the infrastructure that already exists – for instance, further education colleges – and just recruit the experts.
The Government should redirect money from other schemes – for example, the £60m support fund for apprentices – to create a new fund geared towards supporting organisations like the Workers’ Educational Association.
Second, we must nurse part-time higher education back to full health. Institutions like the Open University and Birkbeck are bastions of social justice that provide flexible learning for those who need it most.
We should reinstate fee support for the most disadvantaged learners who do courses that are likely to command a decent return in the jobs market, and demand that more of the £817m per year spent on higher education outreach is directed towards part-time learning.
Lastly, we need to re-energise employer-led training. Currently, employers who pay corporation tax receive £3-5bn worth of tax relief for training investments. We should restructure these reliefs so employers receive more when investing in low-skilled employees. And we should go further by introducing a social justice tax credit to expand the number of companies that qualify.
Ultimately, what we have to ask ourselves is this: do we want to live in a society in which today’s divisions multiply because those who have the most to gain from learning continue to be the least likely to access it?
Or do we want to build something else? A society in which people have the tools to adapt and prosper in the face of adversity, whether that comes from a tricky past or an uncertain future.
That’s why my Education Committee has launched an inquiry into the current state of adult learning – we want to get this right.
Robert Halfon is Conservative MP for Harlow and chair of the Education Committee