Skills at 35

7 February 2013

On Tuesday night I spoke at a National Skills Forum seminar in the Houses of Parliament on the subject of Skills at 35, along with two great students, amongst others. It was an interesting session and a nice way to highlight the lack of sensitivity most Government policy has to stages of life and hence to age itself. 

My starting point was that Government education policy is very age and stage sensitive for the first two decades of a life; after about 24 though, all people seem to be treated the same, if they are regarded at all. So education policy does not distinguish between the motivations, needs, wants of those early in their careers, those with child-rearing responsibilities, those who want or need to re-skill for a new career, those wanting to carry on working into semi-retirement and it certainly pays little heed to those who want to learn to stay healthy, connected and happy into later life.

This is odd because there is plenty of evidence that learning has many benefits to the individual, the economy and to our communities. Research published by BIS this January set these impacts out compellingly. For those aged 35 the research suggested that participation in learning helps with finding and staying in work and higher earnings; it also results in increased racial tolerance, increased political interest and more active citizens as well as more adults feeling confident about helping their children in school work. An impressive list of important impacts.

All the more odd then that BIS policy focuses so much on younger people, particularly when you consider higher level skills. There is a welcome investment in adults with poor numeracy, literacy and general skills, but not enough focus on adults who missed out on success at school and who want to gain higher level qualifications. A disproportionate amount of funding and support goes into our citizens all the way to a first degree if they get that far by their early twenties; if they are coming back into learning at 35 it is much harder to find the funding and to fit the learning in with other commitments. With working lives getting longer, there is surely enough time for the hardest-nosed economist to find the return on investment from higher level learning. At 35 today you might expect to work for another 35 or even 40 years.

I suggested that there are three areas Government needs to act on to address this imbalance: belief, flexibility and opportunities. The starting point is to support 35 year olds to believe that they can learn, that they will benefit from learning and that they can succeed. Stronger advice and guidance, role models and an entitlement to a free advice sessions at the age of 35 would help.

The second action is to ensure that there is more flexibility in the delivery of learning. A learning account which allowed people to record their learning in small chunks over time, a system which encouraged and flexed with the other commitments at home and work, which most 35 year olds have. Introducing cash entitlements would also help. More understanding from FE and HE providers about flexibility is essential; too much of the learning on offer is big qualifications delivered over a traditional academic year; this simply does not fit with the start-stop-start pattern which many adults need.

Finally, we do need more investment in opportunities to learn. Government needs to consider the social and economic impacts of not doing this, but it can also set policy and support nudges to the other investors – employers and the individuals themselves. An entitlement to advice at age 35 would not be too costly for instance. Encouraging more employers to train their staff, particularly their part-time staff, would make a huge difference. Investment in new learning technologies, rather than more expensive face-to-face training, means that people’s investment could be in the form of their time and brainpower, and not necessarily their wallet.

More than anything, though, we need to have Government policy which recognises both the needs and the opportunities of having age and stage-related sensitivities. The two students from City & Islington College who spoke at this event, are now both on track with their careers. What’s more they are very enthusiastic and clearly see the role learning has played, and will continue to play, wherever they want to go next. With the right tweaks in the system many more people at 35 and beyond could find themselves in a similarly satisfactory situation.