Centenary Commission on Adult Education responds to government’s Skills for Jobs white paper

The Government’s Skills White Paper focuses too narrowly on the needs of employers and fails to address even more pressing needs across the whole of society, the Centenary Commission on Adult Education says today.

Dame Helen Ghosh, Chair of the commission and Master of Balliol College, Oxford, says:

“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.

Professor John Holford, Joint Secretary to the commission, says the White Paper is a missed opportunity to focus on deeper needs exacerbated by Covid-19:

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.

In his foreword to the White Paper the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, says his proposals are “about fulfilment and enrichment on a personal level.”

Yet the White Paper contains no mention of the deeper psychological and social learning needs which have been thrown into relief by Covid-19, and the creative ways in which adult learning can respond to them.

The pandemic has left the economy reeling, with unemployment and poverty ramping up,” Professor Holford says. “Even before Covid, the future of many people’s working lives looked bleak, with skilled jobs threatened by the rise of 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.

The document contains no mention of the potential mental health and psychological benefits of lifelong learning and no mention of creativity. It does not cover the wider needs of communities struggling to counteract loneliness and isolation. And while it mentions employers and their needs 243 times it mentions employees just twice – both times in relation to providing a ‘pipeline’ of ‘job-ready’ employees.

Sir Alan Tuckett, the commission’s Vice-Chair, says:

There is no place in the current vision for the wider educational role of the further education sector.  Schools and universities celebrate learning with vocational applications, but they also teach philosophy, ethics, art and music – the tools needed for active citizens.  Only FE is denied this breadth.  And so yet again, and despite the welter of advice government has received, adult community education is left to wither.

Read more of John Holford’s thoughts on the white paper here, and more of Alan Tuckett’s here.