Action plan for lifelong learning

Employers are often urged to do more to improve the nation’s skills base – so much so that the preaching must sometimes seem like a minor form of harassment. Global competition has turned up the volume on this, as countries with huge human resources catch up at every educational level.

Big strides have been made in raising basic skills levels, but much remains to be done as we approach the 10th anniversary of the Moser Report – which identified seven million adults with serious literacy and numeracy difficulties.

Now a third issue has been linked with these two familiar ones. It is the changing shape of our population and, in particular, the extension of the average lifespan. The implications of that for the way we organise our working lives are considerable. Key to that debate is how to maintain and improve the levels of skills and human capital across the board.

Fresh discussion

This combination of factors should be generating substantial fresh discussion which goes beyond the tired tramlines of previous debates. Learning Through Life – the main report from the independent Inquiry into the Future for Lifelong Learning (IFLL) – is intended to do just that.

The inquiry covers all forms of adult learning and a wide range of themes: employment, demography, technology, crime and poverty. Here are some of the primary ways in which our recommendations impinge on employers, given the context I have just described.

It’s not the amount of money that’s put into the system, but the way it is deployed that concerns us. Our estimate of total spending by government, employers and individuals on all forms of organised learning by adults aged 18 and over is £55bn annually. But it is badly skewed: some 86% goes on 18- to 25 -year-olds, mostly in the form of full-time higher education, and in the workplace most goes to those who are already well trained.

So what better use might be made of these enormous resources?

Plan of action

First, we argue for a general rebalancing of public and private investment in learning, to take better account of the changing demographics. Proportionately more needs to be spent on those aged over 25, and especially on those over 50. There will be fewer younger people, so this can be done without reducing the per capita spending on them. We call this the demographic dividend.

Tax relief on training amounts to about £3.7bn, dwarfing the spend on Train to Gain. We argue for greater transparency in the way this is used, and for more training at work to carry accreditation, so that staff will have something to show for it at the end.

Much more attention should be paid to how skills are actually used in the workplace – in other words, to the actual quality of work, instead of focusing only on raising the levels of qualifications gained.

Learner Accounts

We also propose a national system of Learner Accounts, beginning at age 25. We have learnt the lessons of the ill-fated Individual Learning Accounts scheme, and designing a system to promote much greater individual choice is definitely feasible. The accounts should be vehicles for joint investment by state, employer and individual, which should strengthen workplace relationships and give substance to the often-heard claim of people being our greatest asset.

The case for extending working lives is irresistible. We argue that the standard working life should be thought of as running from about 25 to nearer 75 – bearing in mind that much of this work will be part-time in later stages. If this is to happen, we must get over the barrier to investing in older workers’ training which exists in both organisational and individual minds.

We provide a four-stage model of the lifecourse which challenges these deep-rooted assumptions about when people stop learning. The third age – roughly from age 50 to 75 – becomes a major stage of learning, as well as paid and unpaid work. We see huge possibilities in the idea of ‘learning leave’ – time off to study – as good employment practice. This will be more effective than attempting to specify a universal right, and gradually should become a normal part of employment conditions.

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