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Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe



Is the new Skills Agenda enough?

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/hu/file/new-skills-agenda-enough-mark-ravenhallIs the new Skills Agenda enough? Mark Ravenhall

Is the new Skills Agenda enough? Mark Ravenhall

A year ago, UNESCO’s Global Report on Adult Learning and Education showed the positive impact learning has on adults, employers and the communities in which they live. Adult learning benefits our health, our employability and likelihood to progress at work, as well as our engagement in society (such as volunteering or likelihood to vote). Such benefits, the report argued, ‘overlap’ indicating that learning is a cost-effective means of addressing a number of challenges we face in a world characterised by ageing populations, forced migration, unstable employment, and fast moving technological change. As a society we need better systems to help us understand the world we live in and be more resilient to change.

The global report is echoed by research currently being undertaken by the UK Government’s Foresight team into the future of lifelong learning and skills the All Party Parliamentary Group on Adult Education and Alan Tuckett’s recent blog for the World Economic Forum

The message is clear: being involved in learning has multiple benefits for adults, their families, communities and businesses. But so often adult education is seen as solely serving the purpose of economic development.  In terms of public funding, this results in support for those courses that are believed to have the most economic benefits. 

And yet economies are complex things. Our ability to work more productively or longer is dependent on our health and often, for carers, that of our family. Business investment is linked to the civic and cultural life that nations and cities are able to support. If adult learning has a positive impact on our health and civic engagement, as the evidence shows, surely all types of courses have an economic impact as well.

But these are tough issues for governments to address. By and large, policy and funding—whether it’s for health, education, employment, or ‘communities’—are kept separate, or as UNESCO says in ‘siloes’. At one level, this is understandable. Each department or ministry deals with complex issues. Often these are presented as problems to be solved: health problems, skills deficits, unemployment, and anti-social behaviour. So in the area of health, for example, we spend most of our public funding on dealing with illness and injury, rather than preventing it.

The narrative of government is to deal with our problems, not build on our strengths. Bureaucracies are more comfortable in dealing with ‘deficits’ because they are easier to measure. For example, if a country has a skills deficit, then it is measured through levels of qualifications—rather than the ability to do a job. The trouble with qualifications is that they are static; they accredit competence at a point in time.

Qualifications, however, do provide a useful predictor of our likelihood to earn more, be healthier, and involved in community life. But it is not the qualification that counts but the learning that had to be undertaken in order to achieve it. For some adults who did not achieve first time round, qualifications can be a major disincentive. Short term provision designed around adults’ needs as they see them may have similar results and at a fraction of the cost.

The focus on outcomes and impact, as opposed to outputs (like qualifications), has some major implications for policy-makers and providers alike. For policy-makers, the complex issues they seek to address are multi-faceted. Addressing a single issue, often requires professionals from a number of areas to work together in multi-disciplinary teams. For example, the Learning and Work Institute’s (L&W) Citizens’ Curriculum pilot in Rochdale, Greater Manchester focussed on older, unemployed men who were often socially isolated, at risk of poor mental health or substance abuse. In such cases, unaccredited, non-formal learning designed around the needs of the learners creates saving for the healthcare, social welfare and social justice systems. There are many such examples across the UK and further afield. Less common are examples of the health service, the police and particularly job centres co-funding such provision. It is hoped that this will change with greater devolution of funding to UK administrations and city regions.

The challenge for adult education providers will be to respond to this change. For many years, qualifications have been the currency of UK adult learning. They form the basis of the funding system and entitlements to learners. But there is less funding now and funding entitlements as full qualifications is simply no longer sustainable. For example, in Greater Manchester, the level of adult education funding is £80m per annum; to bring the city-region up to the national qualification average (Level 2 and above) would cost £279m. In other words, it would take three and a half years to address this issue alone. So, the devolved areas need to work smarter: looking at a number of wider outcomes (jobs, progression, earnings) and targeted initiatives (such as those who are long-term unemployed). This will require providers who are used to delivering qualifications to work in a different way, perhaps one that is more familiar to providers of community learning and development.  

New Skills Agenda

Devolved areas also face the challenge of predicted shortages in jobs requiring high or specialist skills.  In a post-Brexit world of the UK being less accessible (or appealing) to high-skilled migrants, there will be a need for devolved areas to build their own talent pathways. This is not just a UK issue. The European Commission’s New Skills Agenda (2016) recognises that “people increasingly learn in settings outside formal education—online, at work, through professional courses, social activities or volunteering.”

A New Skills Agenda sits very much within the employment and work strand, but it also recognises that gaining ‘soft’ and transferable skills (“the ability to work in a team, creative thinking and problem solving”) can be achieved through non-formal learning.  Moreover, such courses (it might be family or community learning) should be recognised and validated as providing those skills and competences. 

Such was a key finding of the report Learning Through Life (2009) where such life-wide skills were termed ‘capabilities’. Here, Schuller and Watson proposed the Citizens’ Curriculum approach mentioned earlier. Instead of seeing adults as an amalgam of deficits, the approach builds on the assets that people bring to their own learning.  More recently the Citizens’ Curriculum has used as part of an entry-pathway where adults gain civic, social, financial and digital capabilities alongside basic skills learning. This has profound resonance with A New Skills Agenda which calls for “upskilling skills pathways” but has little to say as to how this could be achieved.

The principle of inclusive growth (economic growth that reduces social inequalities) becomes critical when it becomes harder, for whatever reason, to import labour from other parts of Europe. Joined up approaches to government mean another aim of skills provision is to reduce benefit claims and demands on the health service. So when adults decide they want to do a course on healthy eating, or anti-bullying, or glass-painting, or social media, learning providers should go with their wishes.

There is a lot in A New Skills Agenda to work with: a recommendation to look at what are the ‘key competences’ that adults need; how provision should be co-designed with employers and learners; the focus on digital skills (for adults, for adult educators, for the workplace); the mapping of qualifications across borders; skills profiling for migrants; strategies for specific industrial sectors (often multi-nationals); a better understanding of graduate employment and the ‘brain drain’ away from smaller countries and cities.

But it does not go far enough.

Setting the Agenda

We need to go beyond looking at the role of adult education is supporting narrow economic growth. If adult learning impacts on our health and well-being, our employability and working lives, and the lives of our families and communities, surely the strategy needs to be wider for that. This is the argument behind the European Agenda for Adult Learning for which Learning and Work Institute is UK National Coordinator. 

In October L&W, working jointly with EPALE UK, will present the evidence in its Impact of Adult Learning report and consider what a lifelong learning approach could offer to UK policy-makers. It will consider:

  • What does the international evidence say?
  • What is the impact of adult learning on health, employment, and community engagement? 
  • What can we learn from each other's approaches and those from other parts of Europe?
  • What should a lifelong learning strategy or strategies look like in the context of UK devolution? 

Leading up to the conference, over the next three thinkpieces we will look at the impact of adult learning on health and well-being; employment and work; and civic, social and community life. What are the implications for lifelong learning strategies in the UK? 

Each think piece will set out the challenges we face, how adult learning helps, and what we think should be done.  

We would be interested in your views in setting this agenda over the coming months. Join the discussion and take part in the Communities of Practice 'A UK lifelong learning strategy'.

Mark Ravenhall

Senior Research Fellow

Learning and Work Institute 

/hu/file/setting-agenda-conference-partnersSetting the Agenda conference partners

Setting the Agenda conference partners


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