The skills trap

In the fifth and final blog in our Creating Opportunities manifesto series, Simon Parkinson looks at the barriers to adult learning which policy makers need to address. 

In yesterday’s blog, I considered how the country needs a mass awareness campaign to promote the benefits of adult education and particularly to convince the 40% who believe that learning is not for them. Unfortunately, even for those who are convinced that learning is worthwhile, there are still barriers which hold people back. 

For most of these barriers, policy makers could make – sometimes modest – adjustments which could make a huge difference. 

Take the issue of Level 3 qualifications for example. The Government’s offer that any adult who does not already have a Level 3 qualification can now take a fully funded course is a flagship policy for the Department for Education and rightly so. But it has its limitations. Courses can only be selected from an approved list which leaves out some subjects and sectors – most obviously in the creative industries. We have made the case on numerous occasions that the Level 3 offer will only be successful if the Levels 1 & 2 pathways are also well supported. 

And then there is the issue of reskilling and changing sector. It is very welcome that the Level 3 offer is a form of levelling up, supporting those who have been previously left behind by the education system. But the Level 3 offer is heavily weighted towards work outcomes, in which case supporting people who already have a Level 3 but who want to change sectors or update their skills by taking a second one, would also be extremely effective. 

We would like to see the National Skills Fund supporting second Level 3 qualifications for reskilling and upskilling. 

Getting to Level 3 is a considerable challenge for many adult learners. There are around 7% of the working age population in England with no qualifications. At the last count (in 2019) 10% of 25 year olds did not have a Level 2 qualification. There is a longstanding issue of raising qualification levels at all ages and years of under-funding for community learning has not helped. 

Aiming to increase the number of adults with Level 3 is a good policy but learners will need accessible and flexible routes to get there. Going straight in to a technical Level 3 is hard from Level 2 and would look even more daunting for those with no prior qualifications. Adult learners need the time and options to build confidence, study skills and motivation before embarking on a level 3. This is why we want to see the ongoing review of qualifications below Level 3 conclude with as much choice and variety as possible, providing the maximum number of entry routes into learning. 

Then it is important for Level 3 courses to have looser criteria for prior qualifications. If learners are expected to follow very narrow routes then they might find that the Level 2 courses which are deemed acceptable as prior requirements at Level 3 are not available to them. 

Which brings me to arguably the most unfair barrier of all. Say a student wants to take up the fully funded Level 3 offer but first needs to secure a Level 2 as prior requirement. The student is in a low paid job, but not so low that they qualify for financial assistance – this could be only just above the minimum wage. They would need to fund the L2 course themselves in order to progress to the L3. For many low waged learners, this is a non-starter.  

Recognising this, the DfE has trialled a scheme in recent years to enable those earning at a higher threshold - around £17.5k - to be fully funded for some courses. This has created opportunities for adult learners who would otherwise miss out and we have been pleased to see the pilot programme extended and rolled out by some of the Mayoral Combined Authorities. 

Making the scheme a permanent fixture, with the threshold set at the Living Wage could bring a great number of adult learners in low paid or insecure work into education and able to gain the qualifications they need to progress. 

We will hear from the Chancellor this afternoon what the Budget means for the “Skills Revolution” that has been so heavily trailed in recent days. That revolution needs to remove the barriers which are currently holding back some of the most disadvantaged and we look forward to working with the Department for Education and others in coming months to create opportunities for all.