Adult education is crucial, but it is undoubtedly in crisis. Basic skills such as literacy, numeracy and digital can have a real impact on a person’s life chances and their opportunities to succeed. However, L&WI’s recent research highlights the extent to which the dramatic fall in adults participating in basic skills is having negative impact on individuals and the wider economy. An estimated 9 million working-age adults in England have low basic skills in literacy or numeracy- which is really quite remarkable, in a developed nation. Action must be taken immediately to tackle this crisis and get adults trained and into quality, long-term employment.
Independent Training Providers (ITPs) strongly support provision at all levels, including of course, lower levels, which are often most appropriate for young people and those suffering disadvantage. They deliver consistently high-quality provision and work closely with business to deliver their skills needs, which has been recognised by Ofsted and others. Nevertheless, their importance has often been overlooked and undervalued.
We have just had a spending review which will see skills investment increasing £3.8 billion by 2024-25. I wholeheartedly welcome this, particularly the investment in apprenticeships, traineeships, and employability programmes like Bootcamps. This focus on vocational learning will help get people of all ages and at every level into good quality training and work. However, we cannot ignore that this only partly reduces historic cuts. The adult education budget halved between 2011 and 2020, which has undoubtedly led to the crisis we face today. It is fantastic that the Chancellor is using the UK Shared Prosperity Fund to invest £550m in the Multiply numeracy programme. But it does beg the question- what about literacy and digital skills?
The world of learning and work has changed dramatically over the past 2 years. We have seen a huge shift to online delivery and home working. Who knows what the next 100 years will hold? However, we do know, there will be a shift to greener jobs, digital jobs, and ever-developing technology and innovation. The need to retrain existing workers will be a high economic priority, as some sectors will fundamentally change, or even die out. Without getting the basics right, we will not be in a good position to tackle the challenges of tomorrow.
Many know that AELP have long been banging the drum on functional skills. In certain sectors, adults often have lower levels of literacy and numeracy, meaning most apprentices need Functional Skills Qualifications (FSQs). AELP’s research shows the funding for FSQs does not cover the cost of delivery, adding even more financial burden to the provider. To bring real parity between academic and technical education, apprentices needing to develop English & maths functional skills during their apprenticeship should get fair funding that is equal to the current classroom-funded rate.
The government needs to build on the success of the apprenticeship reforms by continuing to put employers and learners at the heart of the adult skills system, rather than continuing with an institutional-led approach. AELP feel Individual Skills Accounts are the right mechanism for this, facilitating greater choice, ownership of lifelong learning with the ability for different parties to contribute towards the investment in skills required. By thinking in a more radical way, we could really change the adult learning landscape for the better.
As I said before, AELP members are ready to lead the charge on a lifelong learning system that is fit for the future. By treating all FE providers equally in terms of funding and regulation, the government could really empower providers to tackle the widening skills gap. This will be crucial, if we are to have any hope of turning things around, and marking the next 100 years a high-skill, good work economy.
Jane Hickie is Chief Executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP). AELP is a national membership body, representing around 800 organisations involved in the delivery of vocational learning and employability. Their members support thousands of businesses and millions of people across England by delivering the majority of apprenticeships, traineeships, and programmes for the unemployed.