Tuesday, 23 June 2015

The case for Adult Skills

by Tricia Hartley

Tony Blair is on record as saying that a UK Prime Minister could easily declare war on another country completely unnoticed – as long as he or she did so in a speech entitled ‘Meeting the Skills Challenge’. 
Our laughter at the low profile of the skills agenda is starting to sound a little hollow now, though, isn’t it, when cuts to the Adult Skills Budget in England before the Election threaten at least a quarter of all learning and training provision for over 19s outside apprenticeships, and the rhetoric of austerity suggests that even more salami slicing may now be in store?

Research data on early intervention quite rightly encourages investment in early years provision, schools budgets remain protected and Apprenticeships for young people are at the heart of the Government’s skills policy. Their view, however, is that investing in these areas means little funding is left for adults who need to improve, update or refresh their skills – let alone those who find themselves marooned through no fault of their own in areas of work where there are no longer jobs, and who therefore need to retrain. For those in full-time work, adult apprenticeships may offer a route to retraining, and for others learning loans may be helpful, but these are not options available to everyone.
Building an education system that invests in early years, schools and Apprenticeships but reserves almost no funding for upskilling and retraining for adults is like building a house with strong foundations and solid walls but running out of money before you get to the roof.  It smacks of short-sightedness at best, or at worst an inability to do the economic sums, coupled with an apparent disregard for the plight of the lowest skilled adults in our society, and the knock-on effects on the next generation.

For unemployed adults, such publicly funded adult courses as do continue to operate will be free to join, although course materials, transport, childcare and the like may in fact add up to significant costs to the individual – and for many providers, full cost recovery courses may turn out to be the only way to preserve their adult offer. But low-waged adults are caught in the Catch 22 situation of working long hours to make enough to support their families, but, if they do manage to find any time to study, having to pay from their meagre wages for any training in order to improve their prospects of better paid employment in future.

The politicians’ answer to this conundrum is that employers should be willing to pay more to train their employees, and have no right to expect this to be subsidised by the State. That’s fair enough, and for too long there has been an expectation in the UK that work-based training was somehow the responsibility of the Government or training providers rather than employers themselves. But it begs several questions. Firstly, many employers understandably question why they should fund courses in basic English and Maths, for example, when most of their employees have spent at least 10 years in the compulsory education system. Secondly, employers who are struggling to pay the bills and who cannot see past the end of the month are unlikely to be in a position to invest in employees’ training for a prosperous future which may look at best very distant.

Thirdly, many of the lowest skilled and lowest paid workers in the country work on contract – through cleaning or caring agencies, for example, - with no one regular employer who can see the benefit of investing in their skills development. Yet there is a cost to the economy of keeping these workers low skilled and thus low paid. We know that the largest group of benefit claimants is now low-waged, generally low-skilled people in work - so keeping people low-skilled and in jobs where employers believe they can justify paying very low wages ends up becoming a cost to us all. In an article in the London Evening Standard in March 2015 1, for example, MP Tessa Jowell argued that “we pay £4 billion a year in tax credits to low-paid Londoners, effectively subsidising Premier League football clubs and major multinationals to keep wages low.”

In a country in which one in four people will be over 65 by 2033, and in which the State pension age will be 67 by 2028, we also need to consider how we plan to help older adults keep up their skills to ensure they remain useful members of the workforce. While accompanying David Cameron on a visit to India in 2013 2, the then Higher Education Minister David Willetts commented: “There is certainly a pressure for continuing to get retrained and upskilled…. There is evidence that the idea that you first study and then stop isn’t what the world is like any more… Education is such a good thing it is not reserved for younger people. There will be people of all ages who will want to study. There is great value in lifelong learning.”

We would all agree with Dr Willetts: the question would appear to be why the Government of which he was a member apparently did not.

1 http://www.standard.co.uk/comment/comment/tessa-jowell-why-are-we-paying-4bn-a-year-to-keep-working-londoners-poor-10110882.html
2 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/universityeducation/9884301/Over-60s-are-told-go-back-to-university-and-retrain.html

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