English, maths & ESOL in a devolved world

29 October 2015

Last week I spoke at Skills for Life? English, maths and ESOL for 21st Century Citizens, our annual joint conference with NRDC, UCU, RaPAL and NATECLA. In a roomful of English, maths and ESOL experts, I decided that instead of trying to impress them with my understanding of ‘their’ agenda, I would speak about the threats and opportunities which the Spending Review and devolution represent for this vital area of work.    

The Spending Review will not result in more Government investment in any area of education, and there are serious threats to what is left of the further education budget. So it is right for people dedicated to English, maths and ESOL to be nervous. My sense is that there will be some protection for both English and maths, but none for ESOL. The politically toxic nature of the latter, having been caught up in the so-called debate about migration makes it very hard for anyone to have a sensible discussion about ESOL, and I don’t see that changing in the near future. Our recent Making Migration Work Policy Solution sets out our thinking on what would help.   

The protection which I expect for English and maths has to be set in the context of commissioning being led at local level and the pre-eminent target of 3 million apprenticeships over this Parliament. The 3 million target is sucking up resources as well as attention and hinders a more balanced debate about the range of learning opportunities needed in an inclusive and fair society. We all know that an apprenticeship will be as inaccessible to many people with low level skills as a place in a Russell Group university, so we need a balanced range of investments to meet needs.

Our work with Local Enterprise Partnerships and Local Authorities involved in devolution discussions makes me optimistic that this balanced approach is understood by people keen to make their local labour market and communities work better.  Put simply, supporting more people to get basic skills is essential to build stronger communities and stronger economies, and that is obvious in the town hall, even if sometimes it is not in Whitehall.

The Government is likely to devolve commissioning of the Adult Skills Budget (perhaps with the Community Learning Budget as well) and focus more on measuring outcomes, rather than on requiring every penny to be spent on learning which leads to a qualification. It may even encourage and allow further alignment of this budget with the Work Programme, as well as support for people with disabilities to get back into work. Within that scenario, the outlook is more exciting, focussing on meeting people’s needs and their ambitions to get on in life and in work. It would allow a more meaningful set of services to support people to find the skills they need whether they are in work or not, and help develop new ways people can move into career-paths rather than dead-end jobs.

It won’t all be rosy, of course, because some areas will do this better than others and there is a crying need for national sharing of good practice and a policy framework to ensure some consistency. At NIACE we are developing new ways to address the challenges including our Citizens’ Curriculum, a new approach to Community Learning, research into family learning, trials on developing new Traineeship pathways, and new ideas including our Career Advancement Service proposal.         

Whatever the resource available, it’s critical that we find new ways to support people to improve their English, maths and ESOL skills. And we mustn’t forget about digital skills which are equally vital in our world today.