Queen’s speech: Welcome news, but we need more than ‘skills for jobs’

The Centenary Commission on Adult Education has welcomed the Government’s announcement on a Lifetime Skills Guarantee – but calls for the reform to go much further.

The Queen’s Speech (11 May 2021) announced that new laws on post-16 education and training will be central to the Government’s legislative programme for the next Parliamentary session. The government promises a training system ‘fit for the future, providing the skills that people need for well-paid jobs and opportunities to train throughout their lifetime.’

The Commission, which launched a Build Back Bolder campaign for lifelong learning in March, welcomed the news – but added that much more was needed.

Dame Helen Ghosh, Chair of the Commission, said: “Education for adults means so much more than ‘skills for jobs.’ For some, it means learning how to read and write, or use a computer. For others, adult education means learning a new language, mastering personal finance, understanding mental health better. It means engaging with others, exploring difficult topics together, and shaping communities through understanding and tolerance.  A long-term learning strategy for all adults is needed, properly funded and implemented.”

The Centenary Commission on Adult Education published its report in November 2019. In March this year it launched its Build Back Bolder campaign, backed by more than a hundred senior figures nationally, including seven former ministers from all political parties, 11 current and  former vice chancellors, the heads of nine Oxbridge colleges, a former head of the home civil service a former House of Commons speaker and almost every professor researching lifelong learning. The commission believes the Government’s promise of £2.5 billion over five years to fund a ‘skills revolution’ will do little to reverse a decade of deep cuts.

The Commission has called for a programme to ‘Build Back Bolder,’ with wide-ranging reforms which could include:

  • A community learning centre in every town;
  • Funds for community groups so they can shape their own learning;
  • a regional Adult Learning Partnership including local authorities, universities, colleges, voluntary groups, employers and trade unions.

Successful mayoral candidates among the 20 who gave their support to the Commission’s aims during their campaigns include London’s Sadiq Khan West Midlands’ Andy Street, Greater Manchester’s Andy Burnham, the West of England’s Metro Mayor Dan Norris, Doncaster’s Ros Jones, Liverpool City’s Joanne Anderson, and Cambridgeshire and Peterborough’s James Palmer.

Adult learning is a top priority, say Mayoral candidates

The Centenary Commission’s campaign to put lifelong education at the heart of the Covid-19 recovery has been boosted by mayoral candidates.

Candidates from across the country have voiced their support for the Centenary Commission on Adult Education’s call for regional leaders to focus on rebuilding economy, democracy and civil society.

The Commission has called for a programme to Build Back Bolder, with wide-ranging reforms such as:

  • A community learning centre in every town;
  • Funds for community groups so they can shape their own learning;
  • a regional Adult Learning Partnership including local authorities, universities, colleges, voluntary groups, employers and trade unions.

Commission chair Dame Helen Ghosh has written to all mayoral candidates from the main political parties (Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, and Green) asking them to promise support for adult education. She says:

“Lifelong learning is vital, yet it has been allowed to collapse in the past 15 years. The Government needs to spend more, but adult education is now organised locally so we are delighted to have had so many positive responses to this initiative.”

The Commission says education for adults means so much more than ‘skills for jobs.’ For some, it means learning how to read and write, or use a computer. For others, adult education means learning a new language, mastering personal finance, understanding mental health better. It means engaging with others, exploring difficult topics together, and shaping communities through understanding and tolerance.  A long-term learning strategy for all adults is needed, properly funded and implemented.

The commission wrote to candidates in nine mayoral elections and so far has received positive responses from 19 out of the 36.

In London, positive responses have come from major figures in the election. Labour’s Sadiq Khan says:

I commend the work being done by the Centenary Commission on Adult Education, which is more important than ever given the devastating effect this pandemic has had on jobs in our city. A second chance at education or retraining opportunities can change the lives of Londoners. I have consistently fought for the devolution of the Adult Education budget to our city and communities and I am committed to ensuring that running targets those excluded groups who need it most and that Londoners have the skills they need to help our city recover from this pandemic.

Sian Berry, Green Party co-leader and candidate for London Mayor, pledged her support for the work of the Centenary Commission.  She said:

“The Green Party recognises that life-long learning will help to create a healthy society; through strengthening mental health and helping people lead fulfilling lives. As adult education is constantly evolving it demands a flexible approach to new courses whilst ensuring core aspects of education are preserved even where enrolment is low. As you outline, there were challenges before the pandemic and we need to be proactive and responsive as the job market changes.”

Other positive responses included West Midlands Mayor Andy Street, Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham and Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Mayor James Palmer.

In March the Commission launched its Build Back Bolder campaign, backed by more than a hundred senior figures nationally, including seven former ministers from all political parties, 11 current and  former vice chancellors, the heads of nine Oxbridge colleges, a former head of the home civil service a former House of Commons speaker and almost every professor researching lifelong learning. The Commission believes the Government’s promise of £2.5 billion over five years to fund a ‘skills revolution’ will do little to reverse a decade of deep cuts.

Fostering community, democracy & dialogue through adult lifelong education

The Centenary Commission’s research circle on fostering community, democracy & dialogue through adult lifelong education is organising three half-day events, on 7 May, 2 July, and 17 Sept 2021. These will be an opportunity to discuss with, and to learn from, colleagues about a range of creative practices in adult education, and to explore ways of re-imagining new possibilities for practice and for critical thinking about adult education.

Further information and details of how to register are available here.

Has the ‘lifelong learning house’ been pulled down?

An article in today’s Morning Star suggests ‘the lifelong learning house has been pulled down’. Doug Nicholls, General Secretary of the General Federation of Trade Unions, is downbeat about the current situation. ‘Only isolated pockets of excellent practice, largely unsupported by the state, and funded on something far more precarious than a shoestring, now seek to keep alive what were once internationally pioneering services and educational interventions throughout life.’

He is particularly concerned about the future of residential adult education. Read the article here.

Lifelong learning must ‘increase in scale’, & ‘expand in scope’, says Bank of England’s chief economist

Writing in The Guardian, Bank of England chief economist Andy Haldane calls for a more and better vocational and lifelong education to ‘meet the skills challenge facing the UK economy and limit the long-term scarring to it’: ‘the only way of immunising against economic long Covid will be through a skills programme every bit as large-scale, sure-footed and front-loaded’. Read his Guardian article here.

Andy Haldane contributed a preface to the Centenary Commission’s report praising its ‘compelling recommendations for transforming and embedding adult education’. You can read the report and his preface here.

Zooming in Adult Education

As we complete a year since the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown began, William Tyler reflects on his growing online skills. William spent his professional life in adult education, retiring as Principal of The City Lit, London, in 1995.  He is also a freelance historian. Awarded an MBE for services to adult education, William has been particularly involved with older learners, chairing a Council of Europe Working Party on the subject, and completing an MPhil degree in educational gerontology.

All those of us who have spent our professional lives advocating educational gerontology need no reminder that you can teach an old dog new tricks.

This time last year I hadn’t heard of Zoom, let alone given a lecture via it.  Now, I am almost a veteran. 

On a personal note, I have found Zooming a marvellous additional arrow in Adult Education’s quiver, and moreover it may allow me in five years time to continue teaching into my ninth decade.

My very first history class for JW3 (London’s Jewish Community Centre, offering a full programme of adult education courses), on Zoom saw me in a mild state of panic.  The lecture was delivered in a rather hesitant and self-conscious way.

However, I persevered, buoyed by supportive comments from the students, the majority of whom I had known for a number of years.  The students, aged 60+ to 90+, were as nervous and as unsure of using this new medium for study as I was.  It was good to share our concerns in a 15 minute open chat before the class began.  We soon realised how important these classes were to all of us, providing a fixed point in the week when everything else seemed to have been cast adrift in a new Covid world. 

The first point, therefore, to note about Zooming is that it enhanced, rather than diminished, the social aspect of Adult Education.  Not always in the past has this role of Adult Education been fully appreciated, either by political decision makers or budget holders. 

Zooming has some definite educational benefits for older learners.  No longer should Adult Education be restricted to those able to access it physically, but can now be made available to those who are prevented from attending either by lack of provision in their area or through their physical or financial inability to travel to a class.  Earlier attempts made by Adult Education to meet these issues have by and large been a story of failure.  No longer need that be the case.  

The second lesson, therefore, learned from zooming is universality of provision.  The challenge will be to utilise this new knowledge and technology.  A regional college hub, for example, will not be limited by student travelling distance thus enabling it to reach those who otherwise would be deprived of provision.  Such an advantage need not be limited to England alone but can reach out internationally. 

The other Zooming I have been involved with has been the delivery of history lectures to an international audience via the Lockdown University initiative of The Kirscher Institute.  This initiative has opened up even more possibilities.  There is now the possibility of team teaching by tutors based in different countries.  Thus a study of The American War of Independence could be co-tutored from The States and from England, or the consequences of The French Revolution by co tutors from France and Britain.  The possibilities are endless. 

The third lesson learned from the experience of the Lockdown University is that class size is no longer limited.  My webinar audiences for the Lockdown University have risen to 1,500.

As well as the tutor, as said above, the students have had to learn zoom, and soon became proficient enough to use chat rooms with confidence and to provide intriguing backgrounds, ranging from a picture relevant to the topic under discussion to one student who appears before a background of France’s greatest gardens.  Many have been grateful to grandchildren showing them the ropes.  A wonderful example of inter-generational teaching and learning.  It also show that learning by exploration still has a role to play as an androgogical tool.

Two further points learnt by this rookie zooming tutor:-

  • Synopses of classes, posted on tutor’s blog, have proved very popular, and interestingly as a revision aid after the class rather than as planned a pre-course handout.  Book lists have proved even more popular than normal, leading to a series of additional reading suggestions, fiction as well as non-fiction, posted on the blog. 
  • E-mails between students and tutor have helped keep people in touch and led to both sides gaining new insights.  I was sent, after a lecture on The Second World War in The Far East, a copy of a letter from a member of a student’s family to his brother giving a first hand and contemporary account of Japanese cannibalism.

However, as any adult educator will attest nothing can replace the face to face interaction between student and tutor.  I have always emphasised that Adult Education is theatre not cinema.  So the new challenge is how do we build this aspect in when we return to a new normal, in which we have learnt the advantages of Zooming?

Well, we can look to the past and seek to re-invent the short residential experience offered to adult students.  Sadly there is today a mere shadow of what was once a widely distributed system of short term residential colleges, LEA, University, and Independent.  Linking the idea of residential back up to Zooming, with the possibility of international Zooming, reminds me that in the 1960s Kingsgate College in Kent hosted an Anglo-French Summer School for students drawn from the Paris WEA and Kent WEA.  Old ideas can be refreshed to meet new demands.

I finish, therefore, as all adult educators should, with a comment from a student, ‘Thanks for helping to keep me sane and motivated this last year.’   I thoroughly re-endorse that sentiment from my own perspective.  Zooming has been a lifesaver for many older tutors and learners alike.

When lockdown becomes a drag…

… do a course with the WEA!, says Gillian Evans

Retired nurse Gillian Evans has relished the opportunity to keep learning on Zoom during the pandemic.

The WEA allows me to catch up on areas of history and culture that I neglected during my working life. When I saw the course on the History of Drag with Caroline Baylis-Green, I quickly signed up. I’ve always been intrigued by drag. My father was into amateur dramatics and I wanted to know what makes these performers tick.

The Zoom sessions allowed us to interact with some drag artists, which was very exciting. I was nervous about joining. Would I be accepted in the group? What would they think of me wanting to find out more about them? Happily, everybody was extremely welcoming. Drag artists are quite self-opinionated people who care a lot about how they are seen. Besides, Zoom brings a degree of distance and protection – in the same way that a uniform gives you more confidence to ask questions you might not ask as ‘yourself’.

Caroline was excellent. She didn’t push anything very hard at first, but made us think a lot about what we were looking at. I previously thought drag was about men dressing up as women, like they did in Shakespeare’s day. But that was more necessity, as men had to play the female part. Today, drag has evolved into a real art form. It’s highly skilled, and it’s quite an expensive interest too. The makeup is absolutely exquisite. Their clothes and physiques are immaculate. The whole ethos of drag is a wonderful way of expressing how they’re feeling, which comes very much from within. You can’t make yourself do this unless it comes right from inside you.

Queens use drag as a leisure part of their normal lives – they are delightful folk spending a considerable amount of money on their clothes, make up, wigs and general presentation to bring the very best to their audiences.

I’ve always been interested in computers and tried to keep up to date, so the transition to Zoom was straightforward. I was able to continue to volunteer at a local hospice, which got me out the front door and gave me a link to my past career. But as lockdown has continued, so the incarceration has become more of a dirge for me and my friends. The physical interaction of a coffee morning is hard to replace.

The WEA has helped enormously. They really pulled their finger out, right at the start, and put on a mass of courses across the board, which has given us something to hold onto. I’ve appreciated their support immensely.

Further Education & Skills: a place-based response to Covid

In this blog, Julie Nugent and Clare Hatton explain the West Midlands Combined Authority’s skills and adult learning response to the pandemic.

When Coronavirus hit in March 2020 it presented our region, like others across the country, with new social and economic challenges. Research suggested that the West Midlands could be the hardest-hit region – and indeed we have seen levels of unemployment spike.

Disadvantaged residents, young people and BAME communities have suffered the most. We have also seen an unprecedented surge in the number of adults requiring retraining and upskilling as they navigate a new job market during, and post Covid-19. 

A solid foundation

Yet we feel we were well prepared to respond to the crisis. At the start of the 2019/20 academic year, the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) took ownership of the £126 million Adult Education Budget (AEB) for the West Midlands. This was in an effort to align skills delivery with the wider economic strategy for the region, ensuring more people were able to get into jobs, had accessible opportunities to build skills, and could develop career opportunities through strong and inclusive further education (FE) and skills provision.

While the impact of the pandemic is far from over, we have been able to adapt swiftly to become flexible and receptive to the challenges we face. Our recovery plans involved working closely with employers, businesses, governmental bodies, charities, and educators to monitor the landscape and stay ahead of the curve. Doing this has allowed us to create and tailor programmes that provide the right level of training, across key sectors, to help get people back into employment as quickly as possible.

Challenges

The West Midlands is the largest regional economy in the UK, with a labour market of national significance. Yet as a region, it faces challenges in relation to high levels of unemployment, low productivity, a shortage of skills and limited social mobility. However, recognising the need for greater insight to identify the causes and address these issues, at the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA), we set out in 2019 to deliver a better match between the skills of the people in the region and the current and future needs of businesses, to accelerate productivity and deliver economic growth.

It wasn’t long before our strategy was showing real promise. By the end of 2019, the employment rate in the region was at a record high, with 75.5 per cent (2.82 million) of people in work. Productivity was improving at a faster rate than the national average, and the working age population was more qualified than ever before. The training funded through the WMCA was delivering even more economic impact for the region with provision increasingly focused on getting people into jobs, on delivering higher level skills and developing our pilot programmes alongside employers, providers and job centres to ensure courses equipped people with the skills they needed to fill their recruitment gaps.

Our WMCA regional skills plan has been central to this success; understanding the needs of the region, forming partnerships and adding value were central to driving this meaningful and lasting change. As part of this, we have worked closely alongside various key stakeholders including Local Authorities, Local Enterprise Partnerships, TUC, Colleges, Universities, training providers, Adult and Community Learning organisations and the voluntary sector, to build on the work they are already undertaking and create robust, and high-quality education and training for the diverse communities we serve. We have also forged strong employer relationships to identify the skills needed to help them grow and thrive both now and, in the future, and ensure we have provision that is fit for purpose and gets people into jobs.

Dealing with the pandemic

For example, we know there are recruitment and skills shortages in construction, advanced manufacturing and engineering, business, and professional services as well as digital skills. Therefore, we have been focusing on these areas to match the demand with the newly acquired skills gained by those seeking employment and retraining.  

The WMCA currently spends around 72 per cent of its adult education budget on unemployed adults, with a large portion of this attributed to basic level English and maths training. However, assessing recent events and the needs emerging from this crisis, we now have a mixed pool of adults and skilled professionals looking for new jobs or wanting to start their own businesses. Therefore, in the absence of any additional funding, we have adapted our FE provision needs to meet these new demands and provide accessible, engaging and skill-appropriate content.

When allocating the AEB, we need to be fluid with our funding to meet the demands of the local economy and react accordingly to the ever-changing landscape. For us, this has meant working closely with colleges and businesses to identify the provision needed and provide the most suitable training to fill the employment gaps. This doesn’t just span sector-based skills either, but also includes accessible training for workplace wellbeing, in order to support the wider employee health and wellbeing agenda and help employers with productivity and engagement levels.  

Covid-19 has also impacted the way training is delivered, and we have seen a greater shift to online delivery and blended learning options to provide a greater access to skills. We have also created new training opportunities through our free sector work-based programmes which provide a clear roadmap to help people get back on track, particularly if they are unemployed, have been furloughed or are worried about their current employment prospects.

Our Construction Gateway programme provides formal, job entry construction training through both online provision and practical onsite experience with Tier 1 employers and their supply chain. It has so far helped over 2,000 residents over two years, with over 50 per cent of those securing skilled career opportunities within a matter of weeks of completion. Since Covid-19, we have had to adapt the programme and shift to online training which has not only provided a bridge for people to build skills and experience without having to physically be on-site or in the classroom, but also presented a timely opportunity for the construction workforce to continue adapting to new ways of working. For example, new technological developments, such as GPS machine controls, are entering the construction industry – demonstrating a need for workers to continually evolve with the sector regardless of Covid-19.

Our community learning providers have risen to the challenge of supporting people with the skills they need to prepare them for work but also for life – digital skills so they can access services and support children with home schooling and wrap around support to ensure people remain connected to support their mental health. Keeping communities and residents engaged in learning through the pandemic is critical to ensure they are supported with their goals.

Looking ahead

Further education is critical in safeguarding the region’s employment opportunities and supporting our economic recovery, providing people with the training and skills required to thrive in the workplace. Crucial to this success has been our investment and commitment into a place-based approach to FE and skills, working closely alongside employers to deliver exactly what they need, while adapting to the changing landscape. By working together and reacting swiftly and effectively to regional demands and a diverse audience, we believe we have a clear roadmap to navigate the pandemic, reboot our economy and accelerate growth in key sectors.

Dr Julie Nugent is Director of Skills and Productivity at the West Midlands Combined Authority. She has held a range of senior roles across government and further education, with particular expertise in financing further education, having developed new funding systems for the Skills Funding Agency and the Learning and Skills Council. Julie has worked in the Black Country and in Birmingham – strengthening her understanding of skills in improving economic competitiveness and people’s life chances. Recently Julie led on the West Midlands negotiations with Government securing the first Skills Deal in the country with additional investment of £100 million to develop the region’s skills.

Clare Hatton is Head of Skills Delivery at the West Midlands Combined Authority, leading on the delivery of the WMCA’s skills portfolio. This includes the recently-devolved £130m Adult Education Budget and a range of pilot initiatives including digital retraining, and employment support pilots.  She works with regional partners to shape support for skills and employment aligned to priority growth sectors, particularly those targeted through the Local Industrial Strategy, driving up skill levels to secure sustainable employment, enhance skills and improve productivity. Previously, Clare worked for the Learning and Skills Council in senior policy roles, for PWC in their public sector practice supporting a range of national and government clients, and spent four years working in the senior leadership team at City College Coventry.