City Lit Blog

What next for Adult Education in Johnson’s new government?

Story added 13th Dec 2019


As we wake up to the news of Boris Johnson’s convincing victory with a significant majority, it appears the next government has the power to make some real change in the UK.  If the will is there, then hopefully this will impact positively on adult education. Of course, there is the small matter of Brexit to wrangle first…

Even before the General Election campaign started, adult education had an unusually high level of focus from politicians. Labour and the Liberal Democrats both supported commissions to explore future priorities for lifelong learning, the Commons Education Select Committee inquiry into skills was well underway and the Augar Review’s recommendations were widely accepted as a priority in the early days of Boris Johnson’s first government. This impetus carried through into campaigning with some very bold policy and funding announcements emerging from all parties.  Let’s remind ourselves of what the Conservatives have promised in adult education throughout their campaign:

·         Consider the recommendations of the post-18 review

·         Strengthen civic role of colleges and universities

·         Ofsted retained

·         College rebuilding programme: £1.8bn over five years

·         National Skills Fund to support retraining – approximately £600m p.a. from 2021

·         Review apprenticeship levy

·         EU Social Fund reused in Shared Prosperity Fund

It is clear that policymakers are recognising the changing nature of work and how upskilling and reskilling will become a constant as we live longer and work longer. Remaining economically active is only one part of the equation and we need to appreciate how lifelong learning helps us to remain physically and mentally active and better connected to our families and our communities.

An agent for social change

In addition, there is a growing consensus that our education system entrenches inequality. Those who get on well in the school system are much more likely to continue learning and reap its rewards in later life while others who leave with few or no qualifications, or were perhaps excluded, never catch up. The current system of adult community learning makes some inroads in terms of social mobility and social justice but it does not reach enough people to really make a difference to society as a whole.

Almost all research and personal testimony convincingly proves that participation in adult learning brings positive results. What’s more, there are as many different positive outcomes as there are learners – everyone’s experience is subtly different and might result in health improvements, breaking down societal barriers: making new friends, deeper cultural understanding or finding a new job.

The challenge for the funding system is to encourage this and not crush it. The majority of national and regional skills strategies treat adult education as a vehicle for upskilling and reskilling for employment. This is, of course, extremely important but it limits what adult education can achieve and it risks reducing the number of adult learners to a smaller pool consisting only of those who are seen as priorities in the workforce.

Alongside the other Institutes of Adult Learning across the country, we would like to see national and regional government policy embracing – and funding – a wider range of adult learning, acknowledging the various outcomes it achieves. Where it brings health outcomes, let’s see this reflected in support for social prescribing schemes or investment in programmes to improve mental health and wellbeing. Certainly, the evidence base for the health and wellbeing benefits of adult education is strong enough to make this case.

Election 2019: Next Steps

Within the sector, we have been clear what we see as the priority for the next Government:

·         Cultivating a culture of learning for life, making learning the norm and accessible to all.

·         Understanding that learning throughout all stages of life contributes positively to health and wellbeing as well as employment and skills.

·         Recognising that adult learning supports communities and individuals poorly served by the rest of the education system and delivers high-quality specialist skills that are not found elsewhere.

·         Increasing funding and giving the sector a clear horizon to be able to make long-term decisions and investment after a decade of brutal cuts.

For some time now, City Lit has been extolling the societal benefits of lifelong learning – benefits which should not be viewed in isolation from the other most pressing issues of our time: health, housing, the economy and cultural infrastructure to name but a few. We believe everyone has a right to learn and improve themselves regardless of their age or stage in life, ability to finance that learning themselves or need of specialist support. Increased public funding is therefore vital to this success and for the life-changing opportunities that can be provided to adults across the UK.

This is the full potential of lifelong learning which, if enhanced and invested in accordingly, could be a real jewel in the crown for the prime minister’s new Government.  

Excitement or caution?

So, is it right for us to assume that there is now genuine momentum behind establishing lifelong learning as the norm? Or are we getting carried away? We hope Boris Johnson, the secretary of state for education and the full government team will follow through on their promises. 

Throughout the election campaign, the Conservatives suggested they acknowledge that adult learning is an agent of social change, and individual and community progression. Few other interventions can deliver such unquestionable social good but it requires a government that recognises adult learning’s potential and prioritises it to realise its full impact. Whether this is through a national adult education strategy or by mainstreaming lifelong learning in other cross-cutting strategies is a matter for debate. Whichever way, having a minister or a secretary of state who will champion adult education in all its forms is essential. They must travel beyond the Department for Education’s sanctuary buildings and reach out to colleagues across all government departments – and increasingly to the Mayoral Combined Authorities and GLA – to put lifelong learning at the heart of the nation’s future prosperity and wellbeing.

We look forward to working with the new government to achieve its vision for the sector, playing our part in delivering an optimistic future for the UK and healing some of the divides of a bruising few years.