The importance of adult education

By Martin Doel on

Four years ago, Professor Baroness Alison Wolf issued a landmark report for Michael Gove when he was Education Secretary, which reviewed vocational education.  Her findings and recommendations formed the basis of significant policy changes which are transforming education for 16 to 18-year-olds.  Her latest report should capture the interest of politicians to an equal, if not even greater, extent.

The new report, Heading for the precipice: can further and higher education funding policies be sustained?, couldn’t come at a more opportune time.  The Government’s Emergency Budget is only two weeks away, and the next Comprehensive Spending Review is due in the autumn.  Both of these could have a profound effect on the future of adult education and training.

The report echoes what we at the Association of Colleges have been saying – unless funding for adult education and training is protected, it is at risk of disappearing entirely.  If post-19 education starts to vanish, then so do the future prospects of the millions of people who may need to retrain as they continue to work beyond retirement age, as well as unemployed people who need support to train for a new role.

The Government’s previous responses to these points has been to highlight their commitment to apprenticeships, creating three million places over the course of this parliament.  The high esteem that Ministers are placing in apprenticeships is certainly welcome, and colleges are well placed to assist with this target.  The problem is, however, that an apprenticeship isn’t for everyone.  A previous blog stressed that around 25 million adults could miss out.  An apprenticeship is an education and training option which is legally restricted to people in full-time work. It is a job with training. In our economy, this covers around 40% of the adult population, leaving 25 million who aren’t eligible.  

There are many useful points within the new report.  It found that adult skills spending per head of the working age population has halved in the last five years – from £142 to £70.  The underlying argument is that the current higher education system is financially unsustainable and the distribution of resources between higher and post-19 further education is deeply unequal.  Baroness Wolf says this is inefficient and bad for human capital development.  She found that there are vanishingly small numbers of technician level qualifications, while massive increases in the number of generalist bachelor degrees and lower-level vocational qualifications.

For this country to succeed, and for the economy to grow, there needs to be development of the professional and technical qualifications, particularly at higher levels.  For this to be achieved, the Government must look again at its funding of adult education and training and ensure that it is given the support it merits.

Adult education and training in England is too important to be lost for both individuals and the wider economy. Alison Wolf was right in 2011. She is right again now.