Calls for a new movement to persuade Government to put adult education at the heart of its plans to rebuild were heard last night at the second of the Centenary Commission’s ‘Build Back Bolder’ campaign launch gatherings.

The gathering was chaired by the former House of Commons Speaker John Bercow and the panellists were Lord (Karan) Bilimoria, President of the Confederation of British Industry, Robert Halfon, MP, Chair of the House of Commons Education Committee, Sir Alan Tuckett, Vice Chair of the Centenary Commission on Adult Education and former Chief Executive of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, and Baroness (Alison) Wolf, Sir Roy Griffiths Professor of Public Sector Management, Kings College, London and advisor to the Prime Minister on Further Education policy.

Baroness Wolf said there had been a ‘disappearance’ of broad adult education under successive Governments:

“I have to say it’s not just this Government,” she said. But all governments needed to address the need for lifelong learning as opposed to training: “It’s all very well to get rich, what are you getting rich for? So you  train in order to get rich, in order to pay more taxes, to train to get richer. At what point do you actually use any of this to do stuff that makes you into a better and more rounded human being?

“Obviously people have to have good jobs. We have to make the economy prosperous. But what about education? Should we be thinking about it more specifically?” she asked.

Long-term decline

Robert Halfon said participation in adult education had fallen to its lowest level in 23 years, with 38 per cent of adults not participating in any learning since leaving full-time education. That rose to almost half of the poorest in society, he said.

“The fourth Industrial Revolution may represent opportunities, but only if people are trained and reskilled now,” he said. “Of course the Government is doing some good things -the Skills for Jobs White Paper, the Lifetime Skills guarantee. But what we do need is an ambitious long-term funding settlement for adult education, and what I’d like to see and am passionate about is a Community Learning Centre in every town.”

Lord Bilimoria said the CBI had welcomed the Prime Minister’s initiatives to solve urgent skills challenges which had arisen in the pandemic, but more needed to be done.  

“Nine out of ten employees will need to reskill by 2030 at an additional cost of £13 billion, and Covid of course is accelerating the change in the way we work. We must use this momentum to drive a national rescaling effort,” he said.

Sir Alan Tuckett said a major issue was the top-down approach of Governments to adult education:

“Why does the Government want to limit it to those courses if approves?” he asked.  “People need to do that for themselves. Time after time we are told employers should be at the heart of the new strategy – my feeling is we’ve done that year after year. So what I want to see is a national strategy, locally determined,” he said.

John Bercow said all the speakers had displayed a passion for the topic, and that should be harnessed.

“I have felt that these webinars this week have been infused with a passion for an adult education and lifelong learning renaissance in this country. Transforming the immediate sense of excitement into something that is durable, tangible and effective requires statecraft, allocation of resources and considerable persistence, so there is a long way to go. But I hope that people who have taken part have felt genuinely energized by the experience.

“In the name both of upskilling and more importantly of human enrichment it is something that should endure and be a resonant feature of our lives, from cradle to grave,” he said.

You can watch the webinar here.