That narrative does have truth to it, but only for a few people in terms of formal learning. If we buy into that narrative, then the barriers for the majority of people become so high that learning, achieving higher-level qualifications, and gaining a better way of life for ourselves and our families, becomes a pipe dream that is far out of reach.
The opportunity to learn, to be educated and to become qualified can never be a one-off opportunity! Why? Because whilst we have a great education system, not all people follow the linear progression of five good GCSEs, A levels, and then on to university. Even if we do follow that pathway, we then leave that system and begin our working lives. Life can have all sorts of strange impacts on us, and as a result, our need to learn and develop actually continues.
I set out my career successes and told the pupils about my degree in Hotel and Catering Management, my postgraduate diploma in Training Management, and my Masters degree in Personnel and Development that I have collected along the way. I then asked the pupils to guess what sort of grades I got for my O levels (GCSEs). The majority reckoned I was a straight As student and must have gained at least 10 O levels in order to achieve all those things. They were shocked by the reality that, actually, I left school with not an O level to my name!
I am therefore an example of the benefits of lifelong learning. Our system is set up to encourage you to achieve the requisite GCSEs, move on to A levels, and then go to university in order to succeed. However, myself and many others have managed to succeed without following this traditional route.
I have heard countless examples of the interventions of heroes right across the sector who enable others to grasp hold of the opportunity of learning and make a huge difference in transforming their lives. I had my own experience of this when completing my Supervisory Management course at Walsall College at the age of 18, following two years of learning my hospitality and catering craft. Whilst on the course, one of the lecturers told me that I would make a good teacher. I was then offered a part-time teaching contract 12 months later…and the rest, as they say, is history.
Sadly, the theme I see and hear time and time again is that it is more luck than judgement that enables people to access the transformational benefits of lifelong learning. This needs to change. At the Skills and Education Group, we are driven by our mission, which is “the advancement of skills and education to improve the lives of individuals”. This is why we set up our Foundation in 2019, and why our trustees are committed to ring-fencing 40% of our surpluses to fund the Foundation’s work to support and champion social mobility in the further education and skills sector.
As a sector, we must do all we can to enable lifelong learning because, as Benjamin Franklin said, “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest”. I would also add skills to this, but the sentiment is the same – investing in people is key. There is still much to do, given that the system is not yet balanced in favour of the reality for the majority. That is why, at the Skills and Education Group, we are committed to supporting and enabling lifelong learning.
Paul Eeles is Chief Executive of Skills and Education Group