WEA CEO responds to the Spring Budget 2017


Ruth Spellman, Chief Executive of the Workers' Educational Association, responds to the Spring Budget 2017:

In the 2017 Spring Budget announcement the Chancellor spoke extensively about improving productivity in the UK. Growth will be achieved through the infrastructure investment he announced in his previous Autumn Statement and also through significant new investment in schools and in technical education for younger people.

There is a third element which was far less prominent in the speech, namely improving the skills of the current workforce and assistance for those seeking to enter the labour market. The Chancellor’s measures look to the near future but do not address the challenges we face today.

There was some recognition of the power of adult education and lifelong learning in the shape of a new £40m fund to “test different approaches to help people to retrain and upskill throughout their working lives”. This seems to suggest that the Chancellor is looking to build on the best of current provision and to develop the evidence base of “what works”.

The WEA looks forward to finding out more and providing examples and evidence - we hope that the new fund recognises that many adult education providers are already working with employers to ensure that people in the workplace are updating their skills.

Innovative approaches to retraining and upskilling are welcome but it was disappointing that there was nothing in today’s Budget about the mainstream of adult education provision.

There was no mention of how adult education helps people to get into work or to have the confidence to apply for work, often by improving their literacy, numeracy and digital skills.

Nothing was mentioned about adult education’s contribution to improving health and wellbeing or community cohesion.

Nothing about how adult learning providers such as the WEA work with deprived communities and disadvantaged individuals to redress the imbalance of opportunity associated with gender, ethnicity or economic background.

Investment in innovation is welcome but without investment in the main framework of adult learning provision – which has seen many years of significant cuts – it risks creating an unbalanced system in which innovation cannot be sustained or shared because there isn’t the capacity for adult education to thrive nationally.

It was notable that the Budget was delivered on International Women’s Day – which the Chancellor made several references to.  A new £5 million fund was announced for projects to celebrate the centenary of voting rights being extended to women in 1918 and there was also new funding for childcare and “returnships” (enabling people to return to the workforce after breaks) which will benefit women in the workplace.

Yet the Chancellor did not make a full link between his theme of productivity and the challenges which women face in the workplace – challenges which adult education helps many women to overcome, through increasing confidence and gaining new skills.

In the WEA’s Preparation for Work courses 71% of our students are women and our Impact Surveys show how successful our courses are at helping find employment or returning to work.

This was the last ever Spring Budget and later this year there will be a second Budget to bring us into line with the new schedule. In this Autumn Budget, we look to the Chancellor to recognise the role that adult education can play in supporting the working age population so that our productivity is not only future-proofed through support for our young people but enhanced now.

Focusing on the younger generation alone simply isn’t the answer. Carolyn Fairbairn of the CBI has pointed out that most of the people who will be working in 2030 are already in the workforce now. Furthermore, there are almost one million individuals aged 50-64 who are not in employment but are willing or would like to work.

“Will our children enjoy the same opportunities we did?” the Chancellor asked when in announcing investment for schools. The question might have been “Can everyone enjoy the same opportunities now?” Adult education can provide the answer.