Professor John Holford, Centenary Commission joint secretary, reflects on the government’s white paper, Skills for jobs: lifelong learning for opportunity and growth.

You don’t need to go much further than the title of the government’s new white paper, Skills for Jobs, to realise how narrow its view of adult and further education is. Gavin Williamson says he looking for a revolution: the white paper only recycles tired old formulas. For decades, being “employer-led” has been governments’ “silver bullet” for further education. Where has it got us?

With an economy like ours, employer-led skills policies can be the problem, not the solution.

The white paper mentions employers and their needs 243 times – but employees only twice, and then only as providing a “pipeline” of “job-ready” employees. Employees – workers, people – need to shape policy too.

It says nothing about the importance of further and adult education to the wider lives of people and local communities.

As we grapple with the COVID crisis, we have learned how important emotional and psychological resilience are. Research shows adult education is great for mental health and community cohesion. What has the white paper to say on this? Nothing.

The pandemic has left the economy reeling. Unemployment and poverty ramp up. Even before COVID, the future of many people’s working lives looked bleak with skilled jobs threatened by the rise of the robots and artificial intelligence. More and more people are stuck in “gig economy” jobs, which give little opportunity for learning new skills. The white paper says nothing – and does nothing – about the changing nature of the labour market or the rise of the gig economy.

“Wherever you are in your career,” says the white paper, it is “… skills that you need to be successful”. “Success” in life involves much more than a good job with good pay. It involves living in a strong community, with good relationships, family and friends, good health and enriching pastimes. We must have rich lifelong learning in all areas of our lives, and for lives in all areas – even those where jobs – good or bad – will continue to be scarce.

Across the world, democracy is in peril. Social media encourage polarisation, incivility and anger. Dialogue and deliberation lie at the heart of adult education. What does the white paper say anything about adult education’s role in strengthening democracy and civil society? Nothing.

In most areas of education, the government worries about social mobility. Our society is deeply unequal. Inequalities have deepened in recent years: the pandemic is making the poor poorer and the rich richer. Does the white paper say anything about social mobility, inequality, social exclusion? It does not. It proposes, to be sure, a new National Skills Fund “to support adults to upskill and reskill” – but this is focussed on level 3. What about those below level 3? And what about education to address other dimensions of inequality?

Recent years have seen a cascade of interventions by the FE Commissioner as colleges stagger under the pressure of ever-tighter financial constraints and often absurd government funding rules. The white paper says there will be streamlining of funding regimes and improved accountability. What this will mean in  practice remains to be seen. It doesn’t seem to mean colleges’ governing bodies being more accountable to their local communities. It is about “communicating a clear Government position on what constitutes good leadership”, developing “a framework of skills and competencies … for college corporation board members”, new “powers for the Secretary of State for Education to intervene locally to close or set up college corporations, bring about changes to membership or composition of governing bodies or review leadership”, and the like. Hardly a revolution in governance. And centralisation, rather than localisation or devolution of powers.

“Build back better” is the government’s mantra – and who disagrees? But to build back better we need education throughout life which enriches people not only by getting them a job, but by helping them build and shape better communities.