MPs endorse NIACE’s manifesto during adult learning debate

4 September 2014

Just a few days into my new role as Assistant Director of Policy and Public Affairs, I’m very pleased to pen my first blog at NIACE. It’s also a great opportunity to note my delight at joining the organisation during this hugely exciting time, where a core focus over the coming months will be on influencing the main parties to adopt NIACE’s manifesto asks within their own manifestos, ahead of May’s General Election. I’m particularly passionate about the adult skills agenda and the transformative role it can play in people’s lives, having benefitted from HE as an adult learner in my mid-twenties, allowing me to leave the building site behind to pursue my passion in Public Affairs.

Wednesday afternoon provided a fantastic opportunity for us to promote our policy asks, with Meg Hillier MP leading an impassioned adjournment debate on adult learning in the House. It was heartening to hear so many sincere contributions from MPs drawing on strong personal testimonies. The debate demonstrated the strength of feeling amongst MPs that the Government needs to do much more to develop a skills offer that allows all people to achieve their potential and contribute more to our society and economy. It also demonstrated the support for many of the policies within NIACE’s manifesto across the party divide.

Nick Boles MP led the Government response, in what was only his second debate in the House since being promoted to Skills Minister in July’s reshuffle. He reminded members that he himself is an “adult learner” and restated the Government’s central position that “…the most important policy to ensure…improvement is the policy on Apprenticeships”. He noted the need for more higher-level Apprenticeships and welcomed an increase in the number of adults doing Apprenticeships, although emphasised that these should not be at the expense of 16 to 18-year-olds. He also referred to the “difficult and painful” choice to cut the Adult Learning budget, stressing his belief that much of the budget previously spent by Labour funded “…qualifications which did not prepare people for work, enrich their CVs, enable them to command better jobs or add to the productivity”.

NIACE’s work over many years has shown the more expansive and intrinsic value of all adult formal and informal learning – to civil and wider society, long-term physical and mental health, as well as the compelling economic benefits. Providing opportunities for non-accredited learning through the development of the citizens’ curriculum approach will present sufficient flexibility to meet the needs of individual learners. We believe that now is the time to move beyond a qualifications-based funding system towards an outcome-based system.

Responding for the opposition, Shadow Skills Minister, Liam Byrne MP, highlighted a further central theme of our manifesto – the negative impact which our growing skills deficit has on productivity and economic recovery. He then majored his arguments on the Government’s choice to cut adult skills and the “broken bridge” between funding for 18-year-olds and funding for those over the age of 24.

A number of speakers, including Conservative member Marcus Jones MP, articulated the need for more local direction of strategic spending, reflecting our manifesto’s call for a “new localism” and a full integration of skills and economic growth strategies. Meg Hillier MP, who we briefed in advance, spoke eloquently about the clear challenges in adult skills provision and take up. She noted many of the concerns we raised in our manifesto, such as the growing skills deficit and the need for all adults to have opportunities to learn and benefit from their learning at all stages of their lives. Hillier also called on the Government to provide much greater clarity to the sector on future funding and the need for them to do much more to tackle inequalities.

She was followed by Kate Green MP (Stretford and Urmston), who raised concerns about mature students significantly falling away from higher education because they find it difficult to take on further debt alongside other financial obligations. It was also particularly pleasing to hear her glowing tribute to Adult Learners’ Week.

Longstanding NIACE supporter, Nick Dakin MP made a big play of the life changing role of adult skills, noting that “Adult learning has long been a passport to fulfilment. It helps raise aspirations and transforms lives.” Dakin also warmly endorsed our proposal to “create secure adult learning accounts, into which the individual, the employer and the Government could contribute… put in place for all adult learners, whatever pathway they choose to take, and thereby bringing greater parity between academic and vocational routes.” – one of our key priority actions for the next Government.

I’m looking forward to working with my new colleagues and our wider partnership to help further embed NIACE’s manifesto – Skills for Prosperity: Building Sustainable Recovery for All – and ensure it achieves the prominence and impact it deserves.



Peter Lavender

September 17th, 2014 at 8:26 am

I very much enjoyed Steve’s piece here and found it uplifting to know that adult learning is still a centre for debate in the House and NIACE has a strong hand to play. One thing that puzzled me though is the rather vague way in which the piece wanders from ‘adult learning’ to ‘adult skills’ and back again. I think they are different things and we should try to be more precise in my view.