What about adult education?

Cerys Furlong says we need to confront the funding gap in adult education.

The UK Commission on Education and Skills has said that UK employers will need to fill 13.5 million vacancies in the next 10 years, but only 7 million young people will leave education over that period. Despite that gap between demand and supply, funding for education and skills is increasingly being focussed on young people, and we are failing to support many adults who could benefit from education and training.

This week is Adult Learners’ Week and there are hundreds of events going on across Wales for adults to try their hand at learning, many for the first time since they left school. We know that today too few adults in Wales have the basic skills they need to function effectively in society, socially or economically. We know that adults in Wales are least likely to describe themselves as engaged in learning, compared with other parts of the UK. We also know that the population of adults is growing. People are living longer and changing jobs more often.

Against a backdrop of budget cuts, restructures, and in some cases course and centre closures, you might think there is little to celebrate for those of us passionate about lifelong learning. Certainly, the current funding settlement for post-compulsory education is challenging and we need to think creatively about how to deliver services to adults. So what needs to happen?

Firstly, we (that’s all of us; practitioners, government, business) must recognise the full scale of the challenge. We must invest in skills for adults of all ages, to a level that is equitable and rebalances investment across the life course (and not just to age 18).  We need to confront the issue- Welsh Government withdrew its entry into PIAAC – the international survey of adult skills – in 2012, and didn’t enter the latest round in 2014. Are they brave enough to get to grips with the true scale of numeracy, literacy and digital skills challenge we face when the next round comes around?

We need to look at the impact of budget reductions across the board- in recent years we have seen dramatically reduced funding for adult community learning, for part time and community based further education, for widening access to higher education and for apprenticeships for those over the age of 25, as well as the scrapping of the family learning budget. Too often decisions are made in isolation, without seeing the cumulative impact on opportunities for adults to re-train, upskill and to rediscover a love of learning.

For decades, government or local government has contributed to the cost of education in one way or another- to reduce the cost to the individual, and ensure that everyone, regardless of their background, their previous experience, or where they live, has a chance to benefit from education. Now that public investment is in decline, the money has to come from a different combination; from Government, from individuals’ own pockets and from employers.

NIACE Cymru believes that requires a significant culture shift, in terms of our perceptions of the value of learning, in terms of how we convince more employers to invest in their workforce, but also in shifting the balance of what the state pays for. I for one do not want to live in a Wales where we only offer opportunities to young people, not enabling adults a second chance to learn to read to their children, a second chance to re-train in a new career, or a second chance to discover a love of learning that gives them the confidence to play a full part in their community.

So we believe that it is the job of the state to offer a safety net, particularly to those who cannot afford to pay, and crucially to support and empower individuals, communities and employers to do something for themselves. We cannot simply hope that all individuals will want, or be able to take advantage of education, when it is first offered to them. Even the most perfect school system, will never fit everyone.

Sometimes life gets in the way. Sometimes people need a second bite of the cherry. Its in all our interests that we work to enable that. After all, we all want to live in a place where people are happy, healthy and fulfilled- making a contribution to their family, their community and the economy. That is in all of our interests.

Cerys Furlong is Director of NIACE Cymru, The National Voice for Lifelong Learning in Wales. To take part in Adult Learners’ Week, please visit www.niacecymru.org.uk

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