Now more than ever, we must invest in and provide greater opportunities for people to return to learn and develop their skills, and to improve their chances of securing not just employment, but better and meaningful employment.
A shameful number of adults in this country are living in poverty despite being in work, as a result of barely earning the minimum income they need to provide even the basics for themselves and their families. As we move into the next lock down there may be a temporary reprieve for some who were facing the likelihood of redundancy but there will still be tens of thousands of people losing their jobs in the coming months as government initiatives for job retention subside.
The recent announcement by Boris Johnson of a new lifelong learning guarantee for those without A-levels is to be welcomed. We at OCN London join others in the education sector who may be feeling a little more hopeful as we see the return of the concept of ‘cradle to grave learning’ back into the policy discourse. However, if we are to reverse the catastrophic decline in adult learner numbers over the past 10+ years, the result of year on year reductions in funding for adult learning, investment needs to be sustained and the guarantee, unlike those dished out with our material purchases, must endure beyond the current government.
So the financial support for adult learners at level 3 is a significant step but how do we ensure that those many, many people who are far from ready to engage with a level 3 course are also given opportunities to develop and progress from their starting point through the levels. It is not news to anyone in the post 16 education sector that there are vast numbers of adults with low prior achievement who don’t just lack qualifications but lack the confidence to even take the first steps back into learning. Those who may think learning is for other people, those who are facing multiple inequalities that create barriers to return to and participate in learning including time, health issues and resources, those who associate learning with negative school experiences including difficulties with exams as a means of assessment, those who may not see a value in learning and those who simply lack confidence in their abilities to learn.
The recent adult participation in learning survey carried out by the Learning and Work Institute identified that people who were less likely to engage in learning during lockdown were more likely to be furloughed and more likely to be affected by redundancy in the future. One contributing factor for a number of those people would be a lack of digital skills and the government’s investment in an entitlement for adults to engage in digital skills learning, leading to an Essential Digital Skills Qualification, will hopefully start to address this issue.
So there must be investment too in further and adult education for Entry level, level 1 and level 2 provision that serves not just to develop basic skills but to build confidence in learning that then supports and motivates people to progress. Far from being ‘low value’, which qualifications at these levels have so often been labelled in recent years, they are critical for providing routes into higher level learning and/or into meaningful employment. The structure of the learning is important too - small steps and a flexibility in assessment approaches are more likely to engage and retain those who are reluctant to return to learn because they so often associate learning with exams and academic qualifications. Current circumstances require the flexibility that is provided by small steps so that learners can bank their achievements; credit-based learning and qualifications provide this, along with the flexibility to design a curriculum that meets diverse needs and assess the learners using a range of methods that suit different learning styles. Receiving a certificate for those first steps helps to build confidence and motivate people to continue with their learning.
Of course, we need to find a way of reaching those who need this support and find a way of making learning attractive to them. This requires creative approaches to recruitment, to making learning real to their lives; rather than starting with the course and the qualification, starting with the issues that affect their lives such as not being able to bank online or shop online, or wanting to help their children to learn to read and write.
Finally we cannot under any circumstances ignore the investment needed to provide those delivering the courses and qualifications with the support they need because online learning requires, in many cases, more time spent with learners, not least because they are learning in physical isolation from others and cannot benefit from learning from peers in the same way they do in the classroom.
A multiplicity of challenges, and not much that has not been said before but we are confronted by circumstances that we have never previously experienced and there is an absolute imperative to enable and increase participation in adult education from Entry level upwards – it is just not optional if we are to prevent decades of entrenched inequalities and an even greater divide between those who enjoy a quality of life and those who are trapped in a cycle of poverty.