Will lockdown learning reverse the decline in adult education?

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By Anne Nicholls

Lockdown has seen a surge of interest in online learning. This isn’t just confined to students in schools, colleges and universities. Adults are discovering a treasure chest of online courses – anything from essential IT skills and social media marketing, to Zoom yoga and how to make the perfect poached egg. The 2020 Adult Participation in Learning Survey (run by the Learning and Work Institute) found that around 22 million people across the UK had taken part in some form of lockdown learning. That’s 43 per cent of adults, 90 percent of whom studied online. (Note that ‘learning’ covers a wide range of informal situations such as coaching, reading and practicing something. ) All fine and dandy. But only one in three who were out of work did any learning during lockdown, compared to just over half of those in employment. And only one in five adults who left school around the age of 16 took part in lockdown learning. In short, the people most in need of education or training aren’t doing it.

The past decade has seen a sharp decline in adult learning overall. The 2019 Adult Participation in Learning Survey recorded the lowest numbers on record in its 23-year history, plunging by nearly four million since 2000. More than one third (38 per cent) of adults said they had not done any learning since leaving full-time education. Add to that       a 70 per cent fall in the number of adults studying part time in higher education, according       to a report the Centre for Social Justice. The picture is a depressing one.

What are the reasons for this? Money is a significant factor. Funding for adult learning has fallen by more than 40 per cent over the past decade, amounting to a loss of nearly 200,000 course places. Instead, resources have been pumped into apprenticeships and training that fits specific criteria such as meeting skills shortages. Those classes that used to be the core of colleges’ adult education programme - from cookery and creative writing, to French conversation and photography - have all but vanished. Other courses have suffered as well. The National Extension College, a long-established distance learning provider, has seen a surge in enrolments from adults who can’t find a local college offering part time classes in    A levels and GCSEs.

London’s City Lit continues to offer its signature classes in writing, acting, music and creative arts, but most have to be run on a cost recovery basis. City of Bristol College used to run over 240 courses attracting more than 3,630 students back in 2013, but this has dropped to under 2,000 now. Across the country this pattern repeats itself as few education organisations can afford to run free or low cost courses. The Association of Colleges predicted that in less than four years adult education in England could cease to exist.

This has not gone unnoticed by some politicians. A recent report from the Education Select Committee ‘A plan for an adult skills and lifelong learning revolution’ (published in December 2020) says that “poor access to lifelong learning is one of the great social injustices of our time”. The Committee calls for an end to the model of education funding overwhelmingly focused on learning before the age of 25 and a move towards a system that encourages education at any age. What is needed is a long-term strategy for adult learning instead of a series of time-limited initiatives, they say. Proposals. include establishing a community learning centre in each town, the revival of individual learning accounts, a boost for part-time higher education and more employer-led training.

There are green shoots elsewhere. The 2019 Conservative Manifesto Boris promised           a 3 billion national skills fund to help adults across the country access lifelong learning and training opportunities. In September 2020 Boris Johnson announced a lifelong learning guarantee for people without A levels (or equivalents) to be offered a free, fully funded college course to provide them with “skills valued by employers”. Finally, the Skills for Jobs white paper (released in January 2021) includes plans for a new lifelong learning loan entitlement, but that will not kick in until after the next general election.

Encouraging signs or yet another examples of short-termism? A sustainable long-term future for adult education is what the Centenary Commission on Adult Education wants to achieve through its campaign (to be launched in late February) to highlight the importance of universal and lifelong access to adult learning. The campaign takes its inspiration from a report published in 1919 in the aftermath of World War I that set out plans for adult education for the rest of the 20th century. To mark its centenary the campaign’s focus will be on what people have learned during the pandemic.

So what lessons are there for communications professionals working in the education and skills sector?

The first is the importance of keeping abreast of changes in government policies. As professional communicators we need to be expert horizon scanners, looking beyond tactical wins such as achieving column inches, social media “likes” and bums on seats. When tackling student recruitment, for instance, it is important to understand the reasons for fluctuations in course enrolments such as increases in fees and visa regulations. No amount of promotional communications will achieve results without understanding the wider social, political and economic environment.

The second is the challenge of engaging the hard to reach. Whether you work for a college, university, training organisation, government department, public sector organisation,  awarding body or charity, this is a tough nut to crack. The low hanging fruit are usually well motivated professional people with a good standard of education. But there are others –   “the disadvantaged” - that face many barriers to learning.  Lack of money, motivation, confidence, space, time and access to a computer are substantial factors. We need to adopt lessons from the behavioural sciences by understanding how to help people overcome these barriers.

The third lesson is how to change the mind sets of politicians  There are strong advocates for lifelong learning in Parliament. Select Committee Chair Robert Halfon is one. Shadow Justice Secretary David Lammy, who has eloquently called for the return of “night school”,    is another. But the Select Committee report commented that the Department for Education (including government ministers as well as civil servants) doesn’t “fully grasp the value and purpose of community learning”.

The fourth lesson is the need to take action. The current surge in adults learning online may be a temporary blip. When lockdown lifts will we see a return to the downward trend in adult learning? Initiatives like the Centenary Commission’s Adult Education 100 campaign. A core message is that lifelong learning needs to be about individual benefit and fulfilment as well as productivity at work. The 1919 Report, which was its inspiration, advocated the permanent national necessity’ of adult education to deal with the democratic, societal, and industrial challenges that were already at that time unfolding. It said: “Adult education must not be regarded as a luxury for a few exceptional persons here and there ... It is a permanent national necessity, an inseparable aspect of citizenship, and therefore should be both universal and lifelong.” As pertinent back in 1919 as it is now.

Download the report.

Use the hashtagTop of Form #AdultEducation100

Contact the joint secretaries

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john.holford@nottingham.ac.uk or jonathan.michie@kellogg.ox.ac.uk.

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