Our country faces a crisis in adult learning in a post Covid-19 economy.
Even before the pandemic, according to the OECD, 9 million adults in England had ‘low basic skills’ in literacy and numeracy. And over the past two decades the number of adults accessing any form of post-school learning, particularly those from more deprived backgrounds, has plummeted.
The government has promised a ‘lifetime skills guarantee’ and 2.5 billion over five years, but this will only go some way to make up the existing deficit. And according to its recent White Paper, employers will be handed the greater measure of power to reshape local employment and educational landscapes, with the role of trade unions marginalised.
A bigger, bolder vision of lifelong learning is now imperative, one that not only recognises the need to re-skill citizens for the future, but that embraces the values of learning for learning’s sake.
Historically, adult education in the UK has had a much broader remit, for both individuals and communities. It has fostered the intellectual and artistic interests of millions, and helped communities to come together to debate difficult topics, and so promote understanding, tolerance and valuable social action. Universities once played an important part in providing education for their surrounding communities.
Last year the Centenary Commission for Adult Education ( of which I was a member) made a number of important recommendations. These include a a national strategy led by a dedicated minister for lifelong learning; a community learning centre in every town; funding for individuals and groups to shape their own learning; new regional partnerships between local authorities, voluntary groups, universities and further education providers; restoration of the highly successful Union Learning Fund; and a requirement for universities to provide adult education for their communities.
No fewer than five major commissions and committees in recent years have argued for similar change. Investing in adult education of all sorts will pay real dividends. Now is the time to act.