Lifelong learning has never been more important

The world is going through unprecedented changes and this is being felt at community level. We all need the skills, knowledge and confidence to understand what is happening around us to deal with the difficult challenges ahead and to build a better future for ourselves and our communities.  

Because our mission is to bring education to all that need it, fight inequality and promote social justice, we are committed to championing the cause of our learners who need education to succeed and thrive.

The SPƵվ Manifesto

We are asking policy and funding decision-makers for just five commitments:

Create a National Lifelong Learning strategy which recognises the outcomes desired by all government departments (Education, Health, Work and Levelling Up)

Government should underpin adult education policy with a National Lifelong Learning Strategy. This would help other departments such as Health, Work & Pensions and Levelling Up recognise the importance of adult learning and would maximise the impact of funding. The strategy should be accompanied by national campaigns to increase participation and make lifelong learning the norm. 

According to the most recent Learning & Work Institute Participation Survey “only four in ten adults are aware that free basic skills courses are available, falling to 33 per cent of those who left education at age 16”.  

Besides a modest increase in participation during lockdown – mostly among better-off learners – participation rates have fallen significantly over the last decade.  

New government targets are not going far enough - the mission of 200,000 more adults gaining qualifications by 2030 would only reverse one quarter of the falls in adult learning since 2010.  

A combination of better investment and more focused and effective awareness raising is required to overcome barriers, encourage take up and to tackle the nation’s essential skills challenges. This would be hugely strengthened by the introduction of a National Lifelong Learning Strategy.  

At present, the government’s approach to adult learning is piecemeal. As this Impact Report shows, adult learning has wide benefits which in policy terms would touch on health, communities, welfare benefits, arts & culture and many other areas, with responsibilities spread across Government departments.  

A national strategy would enable the lead department – Education – to articulate a vision for lifelong learning and encourage investment and support from all other departments which in turn would drive up participation and create a nation of learners. Scotland and Wales are already well ahead on this.

Invest in education which delivers the prioritised impacts

The Department for Education has pledged to simplify the funding system. Although the detail of the current funding system is complex, the overall structure is fairly straightforward and mostly works well.  

The proposed reforms also restrict the outcomes which can be supported through funding. We believe it is important to retain support for the broader outcomes which adult community learning can deliver.  

The proposed new funding system puts the emphasis on higher level skills and qualifications and is focused on progression into work. It is much less clear how funding for adult education below Level 3 (A level) will be handled and much of the flexibility to deliver health and community outcomes will be lost. 

This will be further complicated by the devolution of adult education budgets to new local and regional authorities and also new skills programmes being delivered through the UK Shared Prosperity Fund.  

It is crucial that, as reforms are rolled out, support for essential skills such as literacy, numeracy and digital skills is not disrupted or, ultimately, diminished.  

The flexibility to deliver broad outcomes through community-based approaches should be retained and protected. Providers should be clear where funding support for their most disadvantaged learners is coming from.

Strive to ensure that the total amount of funding available for essential skills does not fall below 2021/22 levels and should return to 2010 levels by 2030

As well as funding reform potentially making it more difficult to access funding for community adult learning, it is happening against a backdrop of historic underfunding.  

The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that by 2024–25, spending on adult education on its own (i.e. excluding growing levels of spending on apprenticeships) will still be one-third below 2009–10 levels even with the additional funding announced in the 2021 Spending Review.  

The current period of economic uncertainty makes the possibility of budget cuts more real. It is vital that the level of funding is not allowed to fall in coming years and that government should seek to return levels of spending to 2010 levels if possible.

This report makes the case for the positive social and economic impact of adult learning and is part of a growing body of evidence which Government should take into account when making decisions about future funding. 

A lack of investment now will result in a future economic deficit, with costs mounting in supporting the long-term unemployed, a rise in mental health concerns, and physical health issues such as dementia.

Remove the financial barriers to essential skills courses especially for those on Universal Credit and low incomes

25% of people who have not participated in learning in the last three years cite cost as a barrier (L&W participation survey 2021) and this figure is across all social groups.  

Yet many people earning just above the Minimum Wage are not eligible to have the costs of essential Level 2 courses covered.  

Recent pilots – which have now been discontinued – have shown how raising the income threshold even a small amount can increase participation by making those Level 2 courses accessible to those on low incomes.  

Raising income thresholds on a permanent basis would support many more disadvantaged learners. Are we really committed to levelling up?

Encourage education providers and employers to work together on Local Skills Plans to address essential skills deficits

Adult education is best delivered at local level as the SPƵվ has always understood – we are a national organisation with hundreds of community partners.  

Reforms in the Skills Act place a new duty on providers to show how they are meeting “local need” as well as creating new employer-led plans for improving skills.  

This presents the opportunity to address a wide range of local skills needs, including essential skills such as literacy, numeracy and digital skills (which employers value), through new collaborative approaches.  

We are worried that current government guidance is not focussing enough on these essential skills nor doing enough to encourage employers to collaborate with their communities.  

Employers say they value essential skills such as communication, team-work and creative thinking as well as the foundation of literacy, numeracy and digital skills.  

We believe that employers would welcome working more closely with community learning providers and that local plans would be all the better for it.

Convincing decision-makers

Our leadership team are committed to engaging with policy and funding decision-makers in UK and Scotland Governments, and in devolved authorities in England. But the more voices that tell the story of our learners and the impact of our work, the more convincing the case. 

There are many ways that you can get involved: