Growing pains

At
a time of great flux in the field of adult learning, a new report tracks its development
since the Industrial Revolution and comments on the current policy framework
towards adult learning. By Elaine Essery

Adult
Learning in England: a review is a collaborative report by the Institute for
Employment Studies (IES) and the National Institute of Adult Continuing
Education (NIACE) launched during Adult Learners Week last month.

It
contributes to a thematic review being carried out by the Organisation for
Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) across nine countries. The OECD
study aims to review whether the quality and quantity of learning opportunities
for adults are adequate and to suggest how access to adult learning could be
improved. The DfEE asked IES and NIACE to prepare the report as background for
OECD experts who recently visited a variety of workplaces and institutions in
England as part of their review.

There
is little new in the IES/NIACE report – it is based on a review of existing
information backed up by the authors’ considerable knowledge and experience in
the field. But it provides a comprehensive and useful reference source on adult
learning in England at the turn of the century.

Overview

The
document gives an overview of relevant institutional and policy framework,
shows the current state of play on participation in adult learning and examines
the needs and motivation of adult learners – along with barriers to learning. A
look at the benefits of learning and recent moves to widen participation in
learning activities are followed by the authors’ conclusions on the current
policy framework towards adult learning.

The
balance of evidence suggests that learning activity among adults is rising, the
report says, yet there remains a persistent group of non-learners. Factors
behind non-participation in learning include the lack of learning opportunities
of a kind which people want or are able to access.

Jim
Hillage, an associate director of the IES and one of the report’s principal
authors, explains, “Learning needs to be made simple and at a modular level,
allowing people to learn things they want to learn at any given time and
letting them return to learning when it suits them.”

This
is the underlying philosophy of learndirect, the brand name of the University
for Industry (Ufi). According to Hillage, “Ufi is an interesting innovation as
it’s going to make learning more bite-sized, more downloadable, more immediate.
And that might change some of the current policy thinking which concentrates on
qualifications.”

Hillage
is critical of the Government policy focus on qualifications which, he says,
can act as a deterrent to learning. “Often people want to engage in small
amounts of learning. They may want to know just a bit more about something but
don’t want to do a course with a qualification at the end of it, which is what
the Government tends to package up. You may want to do, say, a three-day course
and if your employer is willing to pay for you to do that, or if you’re willing
to pay for it yourself, that’s fine. But if the only way you can access money
is by going on a publicly funded course leading to an output, it makes a meal
of it and makes life more complicated.”

Hillage
questions the importance of qualifications, believing them to be little more
than convenient measures of the quality of training provision on which government
can base payments. “Qualifications are not as important to individuals or
employers as policy tends to think. Ask employers and most of them will say
that they treat them as a filter but what’s important is that people have done
the learning and can do the job,” says Hillage.

Qualifications
do, however, impact on earnings. The report shows that academic qualifications
attract a higher premium than vocational qualifications. Men with a degree
earn, on average, 60 per cent more than average earnings and men without any
qualification earn 40 per cent less than average earnings.

“There
is some suggestion that the differential is narrowing but I think it’s true to
say that employers would on balance still have an inclination towards an
academic qualification which they know,” says Hillage.

Progress

There
has been considerable progress in recent years in raising the level of skills
among the UK’s population, but Britain has alarmingly low levels of basic
skills which contribute to the skills gap between it and other industrialised
countries. Sir Claus Moser drew on figures from an OECD study to illustrate
this in his report last year. Of the 13 industrialised countries surveyed, only
two – Poland and Ireland – have a greater literacy problem than Britain.

Changes
in the occupational structure have caused basic skills deficiencies to become
more measurable, Hillage claims. “People who slipped through the education net
10 to 20 years ago and never fully mastered the art of reading and writing, to
some extent never really had to, as there were many jobs available to them. Now
it’s more difficult to find those sort of jobs and people are having to admit
that they have very low levels of literacy,” he says.

Until
relatively recently there has been little support to help people read and write
once they have left full-time education. Now, tackling poor standards of adult
literacy and numeracy is high on the Government’s agenda.

“Part
of the trick is getting people in the workplace to encourage those who do have
low levels of literacy and numeracy to learn.

“One
of the most interesting things in the last 10 years has been the involvement of
trade unions, through schemes like the Union Learning Fund, in bringing
learning to the workplace. It has to be made very, very easy for people. The
learning has to come to them,” says Hillage.

“Employers
have a role. Some think: ‘This is not my problem, this is the state’s problem.
We will teach people to use a machine but if they can’t even read that’s not
our problem.’ I think employers need to take a wider view. If they want to have
a better labour market from which to recruit they need to give more support to
everybody.”

Conclusion

Adult
Learning in England: a review concludes that “the next decade will be the test
both of government intentions and the efficacy of its proposed solutions.” It
suggests that there remain a number of challenges. Perhaps the greatest of
these is raising the demand for learning among those who need it most – but are
interested in it least – and ensuring that new initiatives focus on those in
need.

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