The Guardian view on adult education: bring back evening classes

Something important has been lost in Britain: between 2009 and 2017, the number of part-time students in higher education fell by 53%. Where once there was a thriving culture of colleges, courses and evening classes, now the number of adults who study in later life is far lower than in other countries, including Germany. In the lowest socioeconomic groups, 49% have had no training since leaving school. Of the £20bn that the government spends annually on post-19 education, 93% goes on those who already have qualifications up to level 3 (A-levels).

The decline predates austerity policies, although these made it worse. One of the contributors to a new report by the Centenary Commission on Adult Education launched earlier this month describes a “complete change” that took place under New Labour. Starting in the 19th century, a whole system grew up around working men’s colleges, workers’ educational associations and universities. By the early 21st century, the intrinsic value of such institutions, and the myriad opportunities they represented, had largely been discarded in favour of a much more instrumental view of “skills” as an asset to be traded.

That is not to say that the labour market is not a crucial reference point in any discussion about what ought to be taught and how. The failure to invest in a skilled workforce is part of a much bigger deficit in long-term, strategic thinking – which the modern Conservative party appears to have abandoned in favour of a blind and dangerous faith in laissez-faire economics. With as many as nine in 10 jobs expected to be automated within the next decade, and businesses being laid waste by the pandemic, the CBI has thrown its weight behind what it calls a “national reskilling effort”.

But new resources for vocational training for teenagers, and adults seeking to retrain in later life, are not the only issue. At the launch of the commission’s report, Alison Wolf, the economist and non-affiliated peer who advises the government on further education, recalled flicking through a “great thick book of evening classes” as a young woman. The report rightly highlights the climate emergency as one reason why it is essential to deepen people’s understanding of the world around them; because lifestyles need to adapt, but also because we have to find new outlets for our imagination and curiosity. Around 9 million adults in Britain have low levels of numeracy and literacy, which is a waste of talent. Investing in community-led adult learning in towns such as Rochdale has led to wider savings in health and policing.

In Scotland and Wales, government-funded accounts to boost adult skills have been introduced. Northern Conservative MPs, and groups such as the Onward thinktank, who have concerns about England’s frayed “social fabric”, should rally round. Ministers plan to spend £1.5bn upgrading colleges. A new learning loan entitlement is to be extended to all adults. But the finished plans should go much further, involving councils and replacing cash taken away from the Union Learning Fund. Schools and universities will always be important. It is time that politicians, and civil society, took more notice of the many other settings in which people, especially those who need a second chance at education, can be helped to thrive.

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