Feeling optimistic about our messages following the Labour Party Conference

23 September 2014

I always seem to leave Manchester in the sun and it’s happened again as I leave the Labour Party Conference after a couple of fascinating days. We were there to promote our manifesto for a truly lifelong learning society, for the changes we believe are needed if we are to have sustainable and fair economic growth.

The conference this year seemed much more focused than in recent years and there was a clear urgency about the discussions, even some cautious optimism. I was keen to promote the analysis of the challenges we set out in our manifesto and there were plenty of opportunities. I focused on four big issues which point to the need for change. Firstly, that there are only 7 million young people entering the labour market over the next 10 years, but we need 13.5 million jobs to be filled. That contrasts with the focus of Government investment in skills on learning prior to working, or at the beginning of people’s careers.

Secondly, that there is still a huge literacy and numeracy problem in this country and that digital skills needs are now making that even more of a barrier for many people to get on in life and in work.

The third big issue I described is that educational achievement is still highly influenced by socio-economic status and that unless we look at family learning we will continue to have the most disadvantaged children falling behind, even in the very best schools.

The fourth is the need for far more true flexibility and freedom to innovate, to be creative with a focus on the outcomes from learning which we want to see. We need to be less fixated on qualifications as the only measure of achievement and allow for more informal learning to help people get on in learning, life and work.

This last point about freedoms fits well with perhaps the biggest and most exciting topic of debate at the conference – devolution and the West Lothian question. It seems as if some of the fervour and passion which characterised the last few months of campaigning in Scotland in the run-up to the referendum has infected politics in England as well. And we must welcome that with open arms for at least two reasons. The first is that the engagement in the political process in Scotland has given a boost to the idea of citizenship and the hint of a new type of engagement politics which as adult educators we should embrace and encourage. The second reason is because it is through local partnerships and powers that we will see the types of learning and skills offers being made for people of all ages and at all stages of their lives. Our work with LEPs is about using LMI and demographic data to describe learning and skills needs and then through brokerage between colleges and providers with employers and learners to help open up new learning pathways and opportunities.

I should end by saying that our joint fringe event with AoC and 157 Group was packed, with barely enough room for people to stand. Debating how the schools curriculum can change to support children to become lifelong learners certainly attracted people with passionate views. That makes me optimistic about our messages and our purpose; I’m looking forward to more discussion in Birmingham and Glasgow at the next conferences.