PF Blog: Adult education – for so long a policy graveyard – is suddenly back in fashion

Tony Blair is said to have once joked that he could have declared war with another country in a speech about skills and adult learning, and no one would have ever noticed it.  He was probably right about that (after all, he was right about most things). But all of a sudden, this policy wasteland has risen right up the political agenda. Bathed in a series of spotlights called “4th industrial revolution” and “rise of the robots” and “automation”, suddenly we can’t stop politicians talking about skills and lifelong learning.

The problem is a real one, and can be broken down into three dimensions. First looking at the issue of poor basic skills, 16.4% of adults in England can be described as having ‘very poor literacy skills.’ In the jargon, “they can understand short straightforward texts on familiar topics accurately and independently, and obtain information from everyday sources, but reading information from unfamiliar sources, or on unfamiliar topics, could cause problems. This is also known as being functionally illiterate.” Other estimates suggest, 8% of people in the UK were estimated to have zero basic digital skills – meaning they can’t send an email, use Google, or install an app on a mobile phone –  and around 24% of the adult population lack basic numeracy skills (those of a typical 9 year old). Obviously, there is overlap between these groups, which typically skews by socio economic status, and by age –  with poorer and younger adults being more likely to have poor literacy and numeracy – though digital skills gaps skew the other way by age.

A related issue is the ability and willingness of adults to retrain and upskill. The UK has a highly skewed system for retraining. The Social Mobility Commission found that more highly skilled adults – in employment or out of it – are much more likely to access training. Graduates are over three times more likely to participate in training than those with no qualifications (30 per cent vs. 8 per cent in 2017), and previous research has shown half (49 per cent) of adults from the lowest socioeconomic groups have received no training since leaving school.

The third issue is the structure of the tertiary education system (and the secondary system), which prioritises and funds education through the traditional academic route much more than the technical equivalent. To be clear, I am a strong advocate for everyone to receive a core academic curriculum up until 16 (though I am ambivalent about whether this has to include all the subjects in the English Baccalaureate). But at that point, there should be equally funded options through technical Level 3, 4 and 5 qualifications and up to degree and beyond, and we simply don’t have that. Repeated calls for ‘parity of esteem’, and odd comparisons and targets to Germany, don’t particularly cut it when set against clear financial inequalities in the way in which different pathways and qualifications and students are funded.

And all of these issues have been exacerbated by the inequity of education cuts since 2010. While Higher Education budgets have more or less remained static (albeit the balance between public contribution and private contribution has tilted to the latter), and 5-16 school budgets have decreased by around 8% since 2010, post 16 funding has decreased by 21% for school sixth forms and FE students, and the adult education budget has declined by 34%.

All three main political parties have committed to action on this. Labour has recently published its Commission on Lifelong Learning and made a very expensive commitment to scrapping university tuition fees and giving every adult a free entitlement to six years of study for qualifications at level 4 to 6, a return of maintenance grants for low income adults, and a right to paid time off for education and training. The Lib Dems have committed to increasing FE funding and providing a Skills Wallet (naff title, nice idea) which is a rebadged Lifelong learning account with which an individual can purchase training through their life. The Conservatives have pledged a general uplift in college funding (both on revenue and capital) and seem likely to make further announcements in the coming days and weeks. The Government’s own Augar review into tertiary education provides ample analysis that the balance of the two halves of tertiary education are misaligned, and there is space to make changes.

There remain a series of complications to navigate – including ensuring that a splurge of new money isn’t wasted in cost pressure inflation; protecting against a surge of poor quality providers coming into the market at pace; preventing outright fraud as happened last time learning accounts were seriously rolled out; protecting universities whole at the same time boosting colleges; ensuring that Apprenticeships are high quality, tilted to the young and to the higher levels without bankrupting the Treasury; and stopping an endless preoccupation with defunding some technical qualifications only to create other similar ones in their place. But if we can solve those – and frankly, if we can’t, then we should get out of the policymaking business altogether – then the outlook for the coming Battle with the Robots looks more promising.