The opportunities we need to seize

21 April 2015

The drastic cuts in public and private funding for post-18 learning and skills over the last 5 years have reduced the opportunities for people to improve their life and work chances as well as undermining the potential for improvements in productivity and economic growth. At NIACE we have continued to raise this issue at every opportunity, pointing out how short-sighted the cuts are in terms of the prospects for inclusive economic growth as well as social cohesion, health and well-being.

Our analysis is not unique. Indeed, there is a strong consensus across the spectrum of political, business and community interests about the need for skills and employment policies to change. That consensus for the need, though, has not translated into a clear strategy and certainly not into delivery across the country. That’s why we called in our general election manifesto for a cross-party commission to take a long term view of how we should plan, fund and deliver the skills and learning we need. I was pleased that this was picked up directly in the LibDem manifesto, but disappointed that it was not in others. We will be pushing all of the parties to consider matching that commitment both in the run up to and after the election.

The manifestos inevitably focused on education up to the age of 18, with varying degrees of focus on what is an important and healthy focus on the ‘next phase’ of learning – from 19 to around 25. I am excited about this focus for many reasons. Principally, it has to be right that we start to construct a true set of choices for young people who may not be able to, or want to go to university and do a traditional 3 year degree. True choice would allow an 18 year-old to think about learning at work whilst earning, learn part-time to higher and degree levels in later life, start work and do a degree later, reach postgraduate level via an apprenticeship, or go straight into a 3 year degree.

At the moment those choices are not available to everyone and they are not supported to the same levels. If we can get this set of options right, we have a great chance to give every young person the route to becoming a committed and skilled lifelong learner. That would be a great legacy for them and for the future, because an 18 year-old entering the workplace now will have a career of perhaps over 50 years. To stay in work for that long will require a commitment to learning and development which too many young people exit the compulsory learning system without.

I was also disappointed by the lack of understanding of how important learning and skills are and can be in helping to address other public policy challenges. All of the manifestos lacked almost any reference to learning in their sections on health – including mental health – ageing, immigration, social cohesion and family support. This is not new, but it does evidence the great challenge we have in proving over and again the link between lifelong learning participation and better health, well-being, communities and child development. We will need to carry on making the case for access to learning being an intrinsic part of other public policies.

The manifestos also showed how quickly public policy can shift. The strong support for further devolution to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland as well as in England is striking, and suggest that there will be a critical set of organisations and partnerships where we will all need to focus our efforts in the next few years. I am optimistic about the opportunities this will present for better joining up of services and expect many of our policy ideas to be implemented. Our position is simple – local partnerships between third sector, communities, unions, employers and public sector organisations will be able to deliver more appropriate, better-targeted and higher quality support for inclusive economic growth and better places to live in.

So, with just over 2 weeks to go I am more excited and optimistic about the future than I have been for a while – yes, there will be funding cuts, but there are also opportunities which we need to seize.