Adult Learner’s Week: we must fight for older learners

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Written By: Kirstie Donnelly   16/06/15

Education is an essential right for everyone, not purely something to be enjoyed by the young, writes Kirstie Donnelly.

During the recent general election, I’m sure nobody failed to notice the huge amount of rhetoric surrounding apprenticeships and younger learners.

Of course, in many ways focusing on such things is quite correct. Youth unemployment is still worryingly high (15.9 per cent of 16 – 24 year olds are unemployed compared to 5.5 per cent of the working age population) and we still have a long way to go to ensure all young people are able to get the education they need to make them employable.

As the UK managing director of a business that boasts almost 140 years of experience in skills-based education, it’s been satisfying to watch the Government wake up to the importance of offering vocational choices to young people. They have been seen as a poor alternative to academic education for far too long.

However, all of the current discussions seem to be very one dimensional, considering only apprenticeships. Whilst this renewed attention in our sector is welcome, with interest levelled almost exclusively at the under 19s, it’s unlikely to tackle the UK’s low productivity, which stands at 30 per cent less than countries such as Germany and the US.

If we don’t offer learners of all ages the opportunity to train, develop and contribute, we will never have a healthy, competitive UK, let alone a society that is fair for all.

Whilst it is of course vitally important to set our young people up for a lifetime of meaningful employment, we mustn’t forget that education no longer ends at the school gates. Someone in their 20s now will most likely be working until they are 70, and it’s extremely probable that over their working lives the workplace will have changed beyond recognition.

We only have to look at the digital revolution of the last 15 years to see how rapidly things can evolve. I think we can take a fairly educated guess that the skills someone leaves education with today at age 16, 18 or 21 are unlikely to be the ones that they need when they are 50 years old.

So the burning question is what attention is being paid to the large numbers of adults who need to re-skill or up-skill in order to keep working? Now more than ever, education is a life-long commitment.

This week is Adult Learner’s Week, when we celebrate the UK’s many older learners. However, the future for adults wanting to go back into education today is far from clear.

Earlier this year the Coalition Government announced 24 per cent cuts to adult learning funding, with more potentially to come. The Association of Colleges (AoC) has predicted that over 190,000 places could be lost for the over 19s, at a time when the number of adults in education is already falling.

The latest statistical release from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) reveals the numbers of adult learners participating in government-funded adult education courses fell by 10.7 per cent between 2013/14 and 2014/15. Surely we should be trying to increase these numbers rather than cut them further?

The reasons to fight for adult education are compelling. Firstly, on an individual level the education system is already leaving many people behind. The ability to study into their 20s, 30s and beyond, and learn skills they were unable to master in school, is a vital lifeline for many people.

It lifts them out of poverty, giving them the tools to find work and either progress in their careers or make a career change.

The difference that having at least one qualification makes to your employment prospects is stark: 2011 Census data showed that less than half (48.5 per cent) of those with no qualifications were in employment, compared with 80.7 per cent of those with at least one qualification.

There is also the question of productivity. Despite enjoying the highest rates of employment since 1971, the UK trails behind its competitors in terms of productivity. Recent ONS data shows that productivity has remained the same since 2007, which is increasing the gap between us and rivals such as the US, France and Germany.

Despite what the Government tells us, it’s not enough to just have high employment; these employees actually need to be adding value and making a tangible difference. Skills and productivity are clearly linked.

Of course, the funding cuts aren’t the only cause for the decreasing numbers of adults in education. In a report launched last week by the Institute of Leadership and Management, two-thirds of bosses stated that employees aged over 50 had low or very low potential for career progression. This was despite 94 per cent of respondents in this age group stating that their keenness to learn, develop and progress was high.

If businesses harnessed all of this enthusiasm and untapped potential it could be used to help resolve the much talked about skills shortages in many UK industries.

Individuals too must take responsibility. In this country we don’t place a high enough value on education, particularly past school age. We talk about businesses and Government investing in education, but people also need to invest in themselves and realise if they want to progress they need skills, no matter at what age these skills are acquired.

So this Adult Learners Week let’s us all make sure older learners aren’t forgotten. Yes, let’s give all of our young people a chance, but let’s not do so at the expense of all the adults in this country that want the chance to improve their futures too.

Enhancing the skills of individuals, at whatever life stage they are in, can only be good for business and for the UK’s competitiveness as a whole.

Education is an essential right for everyone, not purely something to be enjoyed by the young.

Source: The Telegraph



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