Addressing economic activity
Last week saw the first full Budget since 2021. Previous Chancellors, Sunak and Kwarteng, had bumpy rides from their 2022 mini-Budgets, and the current Chancellor (Jeremy Hunt) clearly aimed for a no surprises Budget with plenty of measures pre-announced. The key word was “growth” and the vehicle for that will be tackling “economic inactivity” or, more plainly, getting people back to work.
One of the WEA’s Strategic Objectives is Learning For Work so this is immensely relevant to us. There was no new spending for education and so, for now, we must expect mainstream adult education policy to continue in the direction set out by the Skills For Jobs White Paper and with the current levels of funding. We will be in meetings with the Skills Minister to explore that further in the near future.
Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt (Number 10 Flickr)
The three new developments arising from the Budget were the initiatives around childcare, disability benefits reform and support for the Over-50s. We will look to engage with the relevant departments to explore all of these.
Like most community education providers, the WEA supports a high proportion of learners with long-term health conditions, with disabilities and also with caring responsibilities. Our experience in understanding the barriers and challenges that learners in these groups face means that we are well-placed to engage with these new developments.
Reform of the benefits system
On strengthening disability benefit sanctions, we would echo Stephen Evans of the Learning & Work Institute who said “the answer is more help and support, not just a bigger stick”.
Much of the rhetoric of the Chancellor’s speech suggested punitive measures as much as new means of supporting people into work on their own terms. We would like to see measures which enable adults with long-term medical conditions or with disabilities to follow learning pathways of their own choice and which meet their needs. Any measures which aim to fast-track or take a one-size-fits-all approach will not be sustainable and could lead to misery for the individuals involved.
There are certain barriers which currently hinder people with medical conditions or disabilities from pursuing study or finding work and it will take a more rounded and cross-departmental approach to tackle these. We would like to add the voice of WEA learners to the debate.
Lack of affordable childcare is often identified as a serious barrier to learning and work, so here the Chancellor’s announcements seemed to be addressing the right issues. We would certainly support measures which made it easier for parents to return to learning or to find work, knowing that their children could access good quality, local and affordable care. There would also, for us, be good practice examples to be gleaned from our experience in family learning.
Commentators are currently examining the detail of the new announcements, with some initial concerns about the timing of the measures (which could be some years away) and precisely how they will be funded. We will watch developments closely and make the point that access to learning is just as important for parents (and indeed other carers) as access to work.
Support for the Over-50s
Finally, the initiatives for the Over-50s – again of considerable interest to us with the average age of WEA learners being 60 years old.
There was a raft of measures which mostly brought together existing initiatives and positioned them for the target age group. Most prominent is the idea of a Returnership, a new form of Apprenticeship which would take into account previous experience and offer short training courses for those over-50. Elsewhere, there was also consideration of new “Boot Camps” and mid-life “MOTs”, where over-50s could get advice and guidance.
All of this points to the importance of language and the best means of engaging learners in this age bracket. There was much talk in the Budget commentary about whether the new measures (which also included pension reform) would encourage or incentivise over-50s out of retirement and back into the workplace. Would phrases like “boot camps”, “MOTs”, or even “Returnships” achieve this?
The challenge becomes even sharper when considering over-50s with low or no qualifications and who may have been out of learning, as well as out of work, for some time. This group is largely overlooked in the Budget analysis but we know how important and difficult the challenges are that they face.
We would like to explore new models which can support over-50s into learning and work, by understanding what motivates them and what type of courses fit around their specific needs. In some cases, of course, there will also be overlap with learners with caring responsibilities, long-term medical conditions and/or disabilities. We would bring all of our experience of supporting all of these groups to the discussion.
Overall it was a Budget which referenced some of the WEA’s key learner groups but without fully addressing their needs. Over the coming weeks we will take every opportunity to ensure that the needs of our learners are recognised as these new initiatives move into implementation.
We want to see “back to work” being a positive choice for those who want it and we will develop a learning for work curriculum to support that.