#learningforchange: mid-conference season reflections

16 September 2013

Cautiously optimistic might be the best way to start, after a few good days at the Lib Dems annual conference in Glasgow. Armed with a strong package of pre-conference season asks we have achieved good policy change in the Lib Dems’ adoption of their Learning for Life policy. It reflects many of NIACE’s #learningforchange arguments, particularly on the amount of GDP the UK invests in lifelong learning, which we welcomed yesterday. There are two conferences to go, and the Lib Dems polling challenges are obvious post-2015. But this is a welcome start.

A number of strong fringe events in Glasgow gave good profile to the key challenges facing the learning and skills system, particularly for adults. People broadly agree that local skills strategies on all-ages vocational education and training (VET) are one of the key policy priorities for guiding economic recovery. Ofsted agrees information and careers advice has to improve and has to happen earlier in schools. Most debates feature the dual challenge and opportunity of Local Enterprise Partnerships as key players shaping local labour market assessments, and the responsiveness of the skills system to the needs of these markets and the employers and communities within them.  People agree that quality and quantity of VET provision must go hand in hand, and that simplification of the system for learners and employers has to follow.

More compelling are the views of employers. They agree there is just as much, if not more, complexity and confusion in the UK’s Byzantine higher education system, as in the VET system, and that HE also struggles to produce “job ready” individuals. They regret that the UK promotes the value added by VET so inconsistently.  And crucially, employers also agree that we have to place an equal emphasis on basic skills for progression into VET (a key priority for NIACE), and adult participation in the vocational system after age 24, as we do on the 16-24 cohort. As one major employer put it to me in Glasgow, “it’s not just about 16-24 progression and transition for adults is just as important.”

People change careers mid-life and seek to enter or re-enter the labour market for many reasons – career, family, redundancy as well as a host of causes of labour market exclusion, from family circumstances, to geographic location and poverty/deprivation. These factors matter to employers planning their workforce and organisational development strategies who, like many LEPs, see this as a huge latent opportunity in local labour markets, rather than an insurmountable problem.

So why the cautious optimism? Policy-wise the VET and adult learning systems are moving to a position of what Baroness Sal Brinton described today as requiring “parity of esteem” – equal weight and regard in the eyes of government, individuals and employers. There is some way to go, but this consensus is gaining ground. That might be the optimism.

Predictably then, the caution is in the investment.  As we have consistently argued, there is a tripartite investment in delivering an improved adult learning system that is fundamental to UK growth and recovery – individuals invest time, effort, energy and commitment; government and employers invest in cash and in kind. The downward pressure on adult learning resources which I described this morning at a joint Demos/City and Guilds fringe event in Glasgow, is forecast to hit harder still particularly after 2015/16 based on the 2013 spending review. This downward pressure provides further risks for participation, further challenges for backing the emerging policy consensus on adult learning’s value, and complicates the employer case for investment in the post-24 learning and skills system. This is about more than just government investment as our GDP arguments make clear, but government remains a key enabler of the system.  Here is how we made the case after this year’s spending review.

Baroness Margaret Sharp addressed this year’s Lib Dems conference speaking “in praise of adult education”. That the party has adopted a positive policy statement that broadly reflects this is to be commended.  Whatever the 2015 election may bring, the time to make the case for the transformational potential of adult learning and VET to continuing UK economic success is now.  We will continue to push this case at the Labour and Conservative conferences over the coming weeks, building on our case for #learningforchange.  But mid-conference season my sense is that the ground for this debate, as one of the fundamental ingredients of the still-patchy UK recovery, is more fertile than ever.