I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Third Report of the Education Committee, “A plan for an adult skills and lifelong learning revolution”, HC 278.
It is an honour to serve under you in the Chair, Ms Rees. I am grateful to have secured this debate today on the Education Committee’s adult skills and lifelong learning report. Let me start by giving special thanks to the Education Committee officers and advisers, who have spent so much time working on the inquiry with Members. And I pay tribute to all my parliamentary colleagues on the Committee, who worked so hard on the report and evidence sessions. I welcome here today two of my colleagues on the Committee: my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson)—I know that I am not supposed to say “hon. Friend” about an Opposition Member, but in this capacity I hope that you will allow me to do so, Ms Rees—and my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis).
There are overwhelming benefits to lifelong learning—benefits for productivity and the economy, for health and wellbeing and for social justice and our communities. Our nation faces significant skills challenges from the fourth industrial revolution, automation, an ageing workforce and the devastating impact of covid-19. The Government are rising to those major challenges by providing some new funding for adult education, and I welcome the recent increases in finances that the Government have announced. The further education White Paper marks a sea change in Government thinking about skills. The flagship £2.5 billion national skills fund offers a significant opportunity to transform adult skills and lifelong learning. It will fund a lifetime skills guarantee, supporting adults to access about 400 fully funded level 3 courses. The Government have also funded a number of important schemes to support a post-covid skills recovery. There is the £2 billion kickstart scheme, the hiring incentive of £3,000 for employers who hire new apprentices—and much more besides.
However, despite the recent increases in funding, the welcome White Paper, the kickstart fund and the other programmes that I have just mentioned, participation in adult skills and lifelong learning is in a dire state; it is at its lowest level in 23 years. It is the case that 38% of adults have not participated in any learning since leaving full-time education. Participation rates in adult education have almost halved since 2004. Even worse, lifelong learning is an affluent person’s game; those who might benefit most from adult learning and training, low-skilled adults in low-income work or the unemployed, are by far the least likely to be doing it. It is the case that 49% of adults from the lowest socioeconomic group have received no training since leaving school.
It is the already well-educated and the well-off who are far more likely to participate. In 2016 92% of adults with a degree-level qualification undertook adult learning, compared with 53% of adults with no qualifications. I would argue that poor access to lifelong learning is one of the great social injustices of our time. We must reverse the decline in participation and offer a way forward for those left-behind adults. There are haves and have-nots in terms of adult education in our country.
There is a significant problem with low basic skills. It is hard to believe the fifth largest economy in the world has 9 million working-age adults with poor literacy or numeracy skills or both. Nine million adults also lack the basic digital skills that nowadays are essential for getting on in modern life, and 6 million adults do not even have a qualification at level two, which is equivalent to GCSE. In the past 10 years, just 17% of low-paid workers moved permanently out of low pay.
Unequal access to lifelong learning is a social injustice that traps millions of workers in below-average earnings. Even before covid kicked in, our nation faced significant skills gaps. By 2024, there will be a shortfall of 4 million highly skilled workers. Colleges up and down the country, such as Harlow College, an exceptional further education college in my constituency, will be central to the skills-led recovery, and we have to do all we can to support them.
Support for colleges is especially important now. This week, an Association of Colleges report found that three quarters of college students are between one and four months behind where they would normally be expected to be at this stage of the academic year. The advanced manufacturing centre at Harlow College—a multimillion pound investment—is a leading example of what can be achieved when business, FE and the Government work together to make sure young adults are retrained.
Part-time higher education has fallen into disrepair. Part-time student numbers collapsed by 53% between 2008-09 and 2017-18, resulting in over 1 million lost learners. When I think of potential part-time higher education students, I think of a single parent in my constituency who will not take that part-time opportunity because they are worried about the loan that they may have to take on.
Adult community learning is vital to social justice. It gives a helping hand to the hardest to reach adults, including those with no qualifications, learners in the most deprived communities, and those furthest from the job market. There has been, however, a 25% decline in adult community learning participation since 2011-12 and a 32% fall since 2008-09.
Finally, we should all be concerned about the decline in employer-led training. During our inquiry, our Committee heard that 39% of employers admit to training none of their staff. Employer-led training has dropped by half since the end of the 1990s. Previously, the Committee visited the Scandinavian countries, Switzerland and Germany. This kind of lack of training by businesses for their workforce is unthinkable in those countries.
Investment in workplace training favours the already well qualified, and workers with the lowest prior qualifications are the least likely to have received job-related training in the first place. Some 32% of adults with degrees participated in in-work training, compared with just 9% of workers with no qualifications.
I have set out some stark statistics about what is wrong. Our Committee tried to look at some of the solutions. I do believe that we can solve some of these issues. Just 40 or 50 years ago Britain had an adult education system that was world-leading. Despite well-intentioned reforms over recent years, adult education policy making has too often suffered from initiative-itis, lurching from one policy priority to the next.
We can rebuild this by pursuing an ambitious long-term strategy for adult skills and lifelong learning. The strategy has four pillars. First, let us fund an adult community learning centre in every town. Community learning supports adults who cannot even see the ladder of opportunity, let alone climb it. In Harlow, we are lucky to have a remarkable adult learning community centre, and it will soon be relocated to the beating heart of the town, in the main Harlow library building. Just because there is an adult community learning centre does not mean that millions have to be spent on a new building or estate, but there should be one for residents who need it.
Some 92% of community learning centres are rated good or outstanding by Ofsted, and I have seen time and again how they are an important bridge for people— many from disadvantaged backgrounds—to begin the first stage of education. Community learning centres are places of social capital: they are real places that bring people together and that often get people who go there to go on to further or additional education. Organisations such as the Workers’ Educational Association, and HOLEX members, do an incredible job at bringing learning to disadvantaged communities. About 38% of Workers’ Educational Association learners are from disadvantaged postcodes, 44% are on income-related benefits, and 41% have no or very low previous qualifications.
Secondly, let us kickstart participation by introducing individual learning accounts, funded through the national skills fund. Individual learning accounts would evolve funding into the hands of learners, giving them choice and agency over their skills development. They should have a strong social justice focus and initially be aimed at those who would benefit the most, including low-skilled, low-paid adults. A further option might be to introduce them for vital skills deficit subject areas, such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics. We can start small and learn lessons from the success of individual learning schemes in countries such as Singapore and Scotland.
Thirdly, part-time higher education needs to be nursed back to health. The fall in part-time higher education numbers undermines organisations such as the Open University and Birkbeck that do so much to widen access to learning for disadvantaged adults. Part-time study provides a route to higher skills and higher pay for adults alongside work or caring responsibilities. It offers a crucial second-chance route for mature students.
The lifelong loan entitlement for modules at higher technical and degree levels, which was set out in the FE White Paper, is a step forward in the right direction and will improve access to flexible part-time learning, but as I mentioned earlier when I gave the example of a single parent in my constituency, the part-time learner cohort is very different from the full-time one. Learners tend to be more mature and highly debt-averse. On average, they are older and have more financial commitments. Over a third have dependants to think about, and many are from very disadvantaged or modest backgrounds. Offering fee grants to part-time learners from the most disadvantaged backgrounds who study courses that meet the skills needs of the nation would really transform adult learning. Let us end the unfair anomaly that excludes part-time distance learners from receiving maintenance support.
Another way to encourage adults to pursue higher education, particularly those who might be more debt-averse, is to champion degree apprenticeships. Students earn while they learn, gaining the skills and qualifications to climb the ladder of opportunity. Allocating the £800 million-plus spent by universities and the Office for Students on access and participation to those universities growing their degree apprentice student numbers would help rocket-boost degree apprenticeships. If the recent upwards trend in degree-level apprenticeships continues at the same rate, with some serious policy encouragement it could take as little as 10 years for half of all university students to be doing such courses. I think the Minister is the only person in the House who has done a degree apprenticeship, or at least the only Minister who has done a degree apprenticeship.
Fourthly, to revitalise employer-led training, the Government should introduce tax credits for employers who invest in training for their workforce. The Government have a research and development tax credit and tax refunds for construction companies investing in machinery, as announced in the Budget, so why not invest in a skills tax credit for the skills that are regarded as having strategic importance for the nation? Those are the four pillars needed for an ambitious long-term strategy for adult skills and lifelong learning. To make a success of these reforms, we need flexible and modular hop-on, hop-off learning. It should be like taking a train journey—stopping at stations and then getting back on the train again towards the destination.
There are not nearly enough qualifications that can be taken in a bite-sized modular way. This is a huge barrier to participation for adults with busy working lives and caring responsibilities. Much better careers advice, individually tailored to help adults find the best learning opportunities for them, without the huge replication and duplication that already exists, is essential. Although there are incredible career organisations and grassroots organisations on the ground, I despair of the replication and duplication and the huge amount of money that goes into organisations such as the Careers and Enterprise Company, the National Careers Service and many other organisations in the Department for Work and Pensions that replicate a lot of things and create a lot of the work that each of these organisations do. Careers advice, in terms of the Department for Education, should be predominantly focused on skills, skills, skills.
Despite all that, there is much to be proud of in our adult education landscape. The four pillars set out in our report—a community learning centre in every town, individual learning accounts, boosting part-time higher education and introducing a skills tax credit—must be at the centre of the country’s adult learning revolution. Let us build a lifelong learning system that supports all adults to thrive. For too long our country has underinvested in adult lifelong learning. Our businesses have underinvested in training. Our skills deficit should be regarded as unacceptable. The Prime Minister’s lifetime guarantee signals recognition that change is needed. So, too, does the Education Secretary’s acknowledgement that further education has been historically underfunded and the subsequent FE White Paper. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The Government need to build on the lifetime skills guarantee and really offer an adult learning experience fit for the 21st century.