Further thoughts on Skills for Jobs White Paper

Why earners need to be lifelong learners

Now that the “further education” White Paper is finally out and the dust has settled on the initial reaction, we are starting to formulate our more considered response.

Our first shift in focus is that we are no longer - as we long expected we might be - responding to a paper about Further Education. Instead we are considering one in which FE colleges are considered almost exclusively in the context of skills for work, productivity and economic recovery.

The second challenge we face is that the WEA, and other community adult education providers like us, are not FE colleges. So we need to ask – where do we fit into the proposals at all? The Paper only really talks about colleges with the occasional reference to “other providers”. Does that mean us?

We feel that the best way to get our head round this is to start where the White Paper doesn’t – that is, with the learner. The White Paper positions itself as putting employers first, but we feel that the learner perspective is largely missing and that risks missing some key opportunities.

One of the White Paper’s main objectives is to get more people trained up in certain parts of the economy that are identified as requiring this most – sectors such as engineering, construction and digital technology.

We entirely see the need to grow the economy in this way but is it a fully inclusive approach – will it “level up” opportunities for everyone? The short answer has to be no – not everyone is ready, willing or able to take a challenging qualification in a technical subject.

The White Paper does make reference to the entitlement to English, Maths and Digital provision which shows that the Government is alert to the challenge of raising the nation’s performance in basic skills. But it entirely fails to explain how a learner might get from that entry point up to Level 3 and beyond.

We know how challenging it is for those adult students who join us having left school with low or no qualifications to make those first steps along the pathway to their next level. It’s crucial to be following a course of study that is motivating and relevant to you in order to progress. With the best will in the world, we would not expect the falling rates of adult learning participation to be reversed by a new found national passion for higher level engineering and cyber-security. For some it would be their motivation but for many it would not.

Even if you set your sights on a career in a highly technical subject, how many 40 or 50-somethings will be in a position to make that transition, especially from a low-paid job in a disadvantaged part of the country?

The biggest missed opportunity therefore is that the White Paper makes no attempt to make passionate learners of us all. The concept that only some types of learning benefit the economy is surely misguided. We know from our impact work how many WEA students progress into work (of all sorts and levels) and come off welfare benefits. We also see how many make fewer visits to their GPs, become more active as volunteers in their communities or help their children to do better at school, securing the next generation of learners and earners.

Learning isn’t just about earning and employment outcomes are not the only ways that adult education benefits the economy. The education sector reaction to the White Paper has been muted because, one assumes, providers are thinking about their own student populations and asking: how many does this help and how many does it leave behind or leave out?

The White Paper is the beginning of a set of conversations and consultations and although the Government lines do not look easy to shift, we will continue to make the case on behalf of our students - and all the potential learners across the country - that adult education has economic and social value in all its guises.

Surely we want a workforce which is fully rounded and connected to their communities. One which is able to be flexible and resilient. One which can think critically and solve problems. These wider benefits of learning are not the preserve of a narrow range of technical subjects. What’s more, those who wish to pursue higher level qualifications – especially as adults – will need this foundation of wider skills, knowledge and experience to be at their most productive.

It seems to me that the White Paper sets out too many narrow paths. It also fails to bridge the gap between lower level qualifications and those much further up the ladder. The foreword to the paper describes it as a blueprint, but it feels more like a sketch. If we are to build a future in which everyone is a learner, everyone is in good work and everyone is able to fulfil their potential then we need to fill in the gaps that the White Paper currently leaves and make it relevant to all. We look forward to working with government and our partners in the coming months to build that complete picture.