Our nation faces significant skills challenges from the fourth industrial revolution, automation, an ageing workforce and the devastating impact of Covid-19.
The Government is rising to those major challenges by providing some new funding for adult education, and I welcome the recent increases in finances that the Government has announced.
The Further Education White Paper marks a sea change in Government thinking about skills. The flagship £2.5bn National Skills Fund offers a significant opportunity to transform adult skills and lifelong learning.
However, despite the recent increases in funding, the welcome White Paper, the Kickstart fund and other programmes, 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 per cent 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 per cent of adults from the lowest socio-economic 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 per cent of adults with a degree-level qualification undertook adult learning, compared with 53 per cent 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 nine 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 six million adults do not even have a qualification at level two, which is equivalent to GCSE.
In the past 10 years, just 17 per cent 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 four million highly skilled workers. Colleges up and down the country 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. 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.
Part-time higher education has fallen into disrepair. Part-time student numbers collapsed by 53 per cent between 2008-09 and 2017-18, resulting in over one 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.
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.
Robert Halfon is chair of Parliament’s Education Committee and a Tory MP. He spoke in a debate on lifelong learning – this is an edited version.
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