Some of England’s most high-profile elected Mayors pledged their support for lifelong learning at an event organised by the Centenary Commission on Adult Education this week.

Chaired by the former House of Commons Speaker, John Bercow, the webinar’s panel included Andy Burnham, Mayor of the Greater Manchester Region, Tracy Brabin, Mayor of West Yorkshire Region, Jules Pipe, Deputy Mayor for Planning, Regeneration and Skills for London and Julie Nugent, West Midlands Combined Authority’s Director of Skills and Productivity.

Andy Burnham told the meeting that on taking office his officials had found the adult education budget being spent in a ‘haphazard’ way and had argued successfully with other authorities that it should take control of its £90 million spending on the area.

“It’s an issue much neglected by Westminster, and barely ever gets a mention in the House,” he said. “But when you come out of that world and sit where I do now, you immediately see how mission-critical it is for everything we want to achieve for our city regions.”

Jules Pipe said London’s £330 million adult education budget was being focused on rebuilding the economy: the pandemic had led to the loss of 300,000 jobs, leaving London with the highest unemployment rate of any region.

“As part of our approach, we are working very hard to ensure all Londoners are able to acquire the skills they need, leaving no-one behind, getting people back into work or enabling them to secure better paying jobs. It means supporting Londoners to retrain, to upskill and to enhance their employability.”

But he added there were two parts to this initiative:

“Gaining new skills is also a huge contributor to peoples’ wellbeing and social development. It’s going to provide people with the opportunity and confidence to lead happy, healthy and fulfilling lives.”

Tracy Brabin said that in addition to supporting skills training she was committed to ensuring towns and villages had access to a cultural life.

“Whether that is poetry in libraries, film clubs in ex mining towns, whatever that is, that will be supported.

“Lifelong learning has to be the norm. We’re going to use our budget to reshape and to rethink how we deliver adult education as a region.”

Julie Nugent said the West Midlands was unashamedly focused on using its adult education budget to create jobs:

“We are very much guided by learners as to what they want and they need. One of the things we have done is to actually talk to learners and to ask what they want. It surprises me how much is designed by people in Westminster who have never been near a job centre, who have never been out of work, who have got degrees. It’s really important to put learners at the heart of the system that we are trying to change for them.”

Summing up, the Centenary Commission’s vice-chair, Sir Alan Tuckett, said that despite the focus of local authorities on skills and jobs, the evening’s discussion had also moved around to a recognition of the wider benefits of lifelong learning. He argued for the concept of an 80-20 or 90-10 split between vital core spending and a more creative approach:

“Some space for the bottom-up seems to me important: to trust people to waste money in the name of being massively innovative and creative. I think you would find the 20 or 10 per cent you invest in that produces glories galore,” he said. “Adult learning is like ground elder – even if you set out to destroy it, it will pop up between the cracks somewhere else.”

You can watch a recording of the discussion here.