The results are in for adult education

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By Steve Gulati, Senior Lecturer in Health Services Management Centre 
School of Social Policy, University of Birmingham

It’s that time of year again – lots of media chatter about A-Level and GCSE results. For some, the beginning of an exciting journey and a significant life event. But, what of those who find their academic voice later in life, or weren’t suited to traditional educational routes? Labour’s ideas around a ‘National Education Service’, essentially ‘free at the point of use’ on the same basis as the NHS, is one perspective on the debate.

Lifelong learning (or adult education) is arguably a slow-burn crisis. The Institute for Fiscal Studies found that funding for adult learning and apprenticeships is down by 45 per cent over the last ten years. The Parliamentary Review reports that “participation in government-funded further education for adults was down by 3.5 per cent in the first two quarters of 2018 to 2019.” It’s easy for this to get lost among the storm of current political debate and with the focus on university fill rates, student loans and debt. So why does this matter?

For those of us who work with older learners in formal higher education, or who have worked in adult education outside of the university sector, we know why it matters. That people develop at different rates and at different times is self-evident. Bad experiences of education at an early age can have a lasting impact.

Adult education can have a transformative power for individuals, for their colleagues, communities and their families. Well designed and targeted adult education – using evidence-based adult learning methods emphasising autonomy, choice, a clear purpose, and defined goals – can inspire people and unlock hidden and sometimes long-buried potential. Those engaged in this sector share testimonies of people whose confidence has soared and horizons broadened, with the benefits both to the individual and society, both social and economic.

Funding remains a debated and inherently political issue. Where to target scarce resources? Who should benefit from financial assistance from the state? It could be argued that the ‘burden’ – if educational funding can be considered as such – could reasonably fall to the individual learner, given that most adults are in paid employment. Or that employers could pay more, given the economic benefit they accrue. But, this ignores the plight of those individuals whose earning power may already have been decreased by low educational attainment in their early years.

If employers pay, they will also expect shorter-term returns, and possibly a significant say over curriculum and methods, too. It comes down to whether society feels that education is a privilege or a right – that is as much a political as an economic choice.

At this exciting time for young adults, for whom the compulsory schooling system has ‘worked’ in terms of opening up horizons, let’s not forget the many others who could flourish in a well-designed, properly funded adult education sector.

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