Great progress but the real work starts now

October 9, 2014, by Steve Mulligan. filed under Uncategorized; No Comments.
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We leave the Lib Dem Conference in Glasgow with renewed vigour, as the curtain falls on the 2014 Party Conference season.

Overall, it’s been a positive week, with great evidence that NIACE’s Manifesto is gaining good traction in emerging Lib Dem policy. It was pleasing to see adult education so prominent within Vince Cable’s speech on Monday, where he highlighted his desire to “see a big expansion of community adult education”. On Tuesday , we saw delegates vote to support the measures within the Lib Dem pre-manifesto, which incorporates the calls in NIACE’s Manifesto’s for a cross-party Commission on skills needs (positively, the Lib Dems want this to be a Royal Commission), our policy on learning accounts, and an important over-arching commitment to support lifelong learning for all. Also on Tuesday, delegates voted in support of the Lib Dem’s new policy document – Age Ready Britain which stated a firm commitment to work with NIACE to roll out and promote mid-life career reviews, following our successful pilots with Government.

We’ve worked hard over the past three weeks to directly promote our Manifesto to those influential politicians who will likely have a clear bearing on the employment and skills agenda in the run up to the General Election, and beyond.

Whilst it would be wrong to claim universal support for all of NIACE’s policy proposals from all the politicians/advisors we’ve met, what we’ve seen is a good general support for our Manifesto, and a good understanding of the need to do more to unlock the talents of all if we’re to sustain and further grow the economy. There is a clear shared consensus across the parties that we need more apprenticeships, that youth unemployment must be tackled, that growth in higher education must be secured, and that our poor levels of literacy and numeracy needs to be improved.

Despite this progress, we cannot afford to be complacent. Whilst party manifestos are still being drafted, we’re in a good position to make a final push to gain further traction for our Manifesto before the ink is dry.

A remaining challenge is the need to gain cross party agreement for a new organisational settlement which can enable delivery of a skills system which can meet the challenges of the 21st Century. The centrepiece of our Manifesto is a call for an overarching vision for lifelong learning, which unites education at all ages and at all stages of life. As well as a call for the creation of a single UK Government department responsible for education, skills and work, bringing together schooling, further and higher education within one department of state along with the welfare to work policies of the Department for Work and Pensions. We believe this should be underpinned by new localism which integrates skills with economic growth strategies and provides leadership through LEPs and combined authorities. Whilst we have seen a growing appetite for devolution of skills policy and budgets from all parties, we are yet to gain universal agreement of the need for central Government reform. We are also keen to see a much greater focus from all the parties for reform focused on individual outcomes which gives people much greater control of their own learning and which allows them to benefit from learning and skills development throughout their working lives.

The growing consensus for a Royal Commission to help set the long-term vision and policy for education and skills would go a long way to satisfying both these challenges as well as galvanising cross-party support. We will be redoubling our efforts to promote this across the political spectrum and our other Manifesto policy proposals as each of the Parties begin to finalise their policy positions in advance of the General Election. In many ways the real work starts now on the important mission to secure a skills system fit for the 21st Century which supports a truly lifelong learning culture.

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Literacy is a fundamental right

October 8, 2014, by Tom Stannard. filed under Uncategorized; No Comments.
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A version of this column was originally published in The Municipal Journal on 24 September 2014.

In early 2014, NIACE was instrumental in influencing Parliament’s cross-party Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Select Committee to undertake a significant national inquiry into adult literacy and numeracy. Adrian Bailey MP, chair of the BIS committee, praised NIACE for hosting an ‘invaluable’ event in March, in which we showcased the steps to tackle low levels of adult English and maths by colleges, local government, employers, training providers and offender management services.

The committee’s final report, published on 8 September, recognises the ‘ability to gain literacy and numeracy skills as a fundamental right of all adults’ as well as the need for flexibility in how funding and provision secures this.

The report calls for government to launch a high-profile campaign to tackle the low levels of adult literacy and numeracy in England. It also recommends improved funding arrangements and better assessment and support of the literacy and numeracy needs of unemployed people, something NIACE has argued in favour of for some time.

The BIS committee said: ‘Adult learning plays a vital role in helping people escape the trap of low-skilled jobs or unemployment, yet found there was little rigorous or uniform assessment in place for when adults claim unemployment benefit – despite the fact that this is an ideal opportunity to help adults to gain essential skills needed to get a job’.

The report echoed important aspects of our recent manifesto for the General Election, Skills for Prosperity, highlighting:

  • Less linear learning schemes are often more effective in engaging adults and improving their literacy and numeracy.
  • A call for improved cross-departmental working between BIS, DfE, DCLG, DWP, MoD and MoJ.
  • A call for the Government to take a more flexible approach to educating adults, through the provision of Personal Skills Accounts funded by learners, employers and the state and giving individuals greater control over their own learning.

In our response, echoing the concerns of our many supporters in Councils and Local Enterprise Partnerships, we argued that good quality provision must be made available in a range of settings – colleges, adult education centres, workplaces, communities, as well as in schools to help families learn together, helping to break intergenerational cycles of low literacy and numeracy.

As well as English and maths, we have also built digital skills into our national R&D programme and argue prominently that this must be considered alongside literacy and numeracy as the ‘third basic skill’. Nearly all – 90% – of new jobs by 2015 will require at least basic digital skills.

What we are witnessing in all of these debates is the gradual and necessary rehabilitation of lifelong learning on the national stage. As the BIS Committee report recognises, this is no longer simply a nice term in the “comfort zone” of adult education traditionalists, but a fundamental driver of future national economic success.

NIACE is fighting to secure the concept of lifelong learning as a vital part of a successful economy and society and we are succeeding because Government and Opposition parties are not only using the term ‘lifelong learning’, but bringing forward practical proposals to deliver it to help address adult literacy and numeracy deficits that hold back populations in local communities across the country. In an ever stronger partnership with LEPs and local government, we are making good ground in securing this in national debate as a crunch election issue all parties now have to take seriously in their 2015-20 economic plans.

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What does ‘more’ mean during an extended period of austerity?

October 3, 2014, by Steve Mulligan. filed under Uncategorized; No Comments.
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Personally, I love the buzz of Party Conferences – they’re noisy, busy, cramped and there are always too many things going on at once and many fascinating discussions to be had during the long days. The downside is they’re amongst the worse places on earth to actually concentrate and think – which is scary, as it’s usually where I am when I’m asked to quickly formulate a sensible view on a brand new policy I’ve never heard of before.

This week’s Conservative Conference was a case in point, particularly during the Leader’s Speech, where we saw a range of highly ambitious new pledges and new tax cuts, against a backdrop of continuing austerity measures – and where the devil is always in the unpublished detail. So with the luxury of time and a good night’s sleep, here are my reflective thoughts on an interesting few days in Birmingham.

For the joint Fringe we held on Tuesday with 157 Group and AoC we had an extremely high-calibre panel – including former Universities Minister, Rt Hon David Willetts MP, and Education Committee Chair, Graham Stuart MP. We heard excellent questions and contributions from all attendees, and strong support for many of the priorities highlighted in NIACE’s manifesto.

Turning to the floor of the conference itself, a series of measures were announced over the week which will have a big impact on the way FE will likely be delivered if the Conservatives regain office in 2015, and some sooner. The biggest issue certainly remains the deficit and the big commitment to retain the ring-fence around health spending, together with £7bn of new tax cuts. Together, these measures will place much greater pressure on the public purse with experts like the IFS predicting that unprotected departments will see cuts very likely to exceed 20% for 2015-18.

The announcement (echoed in speeches by Cameron, Morgan, Osborne, Smith and Gove) regarding the funding of three million additional Apprenticeships over the next Parliament should be welcomed – although raises questions about how quality will be maintained, and how employers and learners will be incentivised to see it succeed whilst ensuring that learners (many of whom won’t be there by choice) won’t be exploited. This places even more emphasis on the need to introduce an Apprenticeships Charter, as advocated in our manifesto . This clear contract between the learner, employer and Government would serve a critical role in ensuring each of the objectives of the three parties if the contracts are achieved. This could satisfy concerns about maintaining quality, as well delivering a much greater return on investment for learners, employers and Government alike.

Perhaps more serious, are concerns about what money will be left to fund other skills interventions critical to our success, against a backdrop of further cuts and with dwindling funds mandated towards young apprentices only. Indeed, the new Skills Minister Nick Boles MP, told delegates at FE Week’s Fringe Event that colleges should reconfigure their budgets accordingly in preparation – clearly signalling where Government expects to see future resource earmarked. There’s certainly much more thinking to be done across the sector on the wider implications of this policy, which can only happen when the full detail emerges.

Our recent press release calls for an ‘adult skills revolution’ to help tackle the serious skills challenges ahead and our concerns about the impact on adult learners. The stark reality remains that there will be 13.5m job vacancies over the coming decade, but only 7m new young entrants to the labour market – so engaging adults in a culture of learning is a pressing economic necessity and critical to our future prosperity.

The Prime Minister noted yesterday that his policies aim to ‘Secure a better Britain for all’. This is an aim we all want to see and support, however, unless much more is done to help all members of society reach their potential, I cannot realistically see how this could be achieved.

We await further detail on yesterday’s announcements and also what will come from the Liberal Democrats at their Conference in Glasgow, where we will once again be making our case strongly for a skills system which is fit for the 21st Century, which delivers a truly lifelong learning society.

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Miliband’s missing words and why they matter

September 25, 2014, by Steve Mulligan. filed under Uncategorized; No Comments.
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Many column inches have been expended since it was revealed that the speech delivered by Ed Miliband on Tuesday was not the one he originally intended to give.

Before you switch off – I can assure you I’m not going to retread the “deficit of deficit” line which has been done to death in the media. Instead, I wanted to pick up on the other issue which has received widespread comment – immigration – although again not in the way many commentators are framing their arguments, so please stay with me.

The original draft of the speech, shared before Miliband got to his feet on Tuesday, included the following short statement of intent…

“Immigration benefits our country, but those who come here have a responsibility to learn English and earn their way. And employers have a responsibility not to exploit migrant workers and undercut wages. Because together we can and on our own we can’t. Government, business, working people acting together. Living up to their responsibilities.”

Within this there’s an important message that’s worthy of much closer examination – a clear pledge to increase provision of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL).

This is of course welcome at a time when it might be easy for the ESOL sector to conclude that Ed Miliband is not the only person who has forgotten to mention ESOL. As contributors to NIACE’s recent event on the future for ESOL pointed out, there is a current lack of focus and joined-up thinking in skills policy on ESOL.

This has resulted in an overly narrow focus on provision for the unemployed, neglecting the many low-paid workers, and others, who stand to gain from improving their language skills Any emphasis on a “responsibility” to learn English ignores the reality, as reported by the ESOL professional body NATECLA, of learners desperate to get a place in oversubscribed ESOL classes for which demand clearly outstrips supply.

NIACE views ESOL as a high priority and we’ve worked to develop teaching and learning shaped by best practice as well as advocating on behalf of ESOL learners and teachers. Our analysis clearly shows that the UK’s low levels of basic skills, including language skills of new entrants, place a significant barrier and burden on the UK’s business competitiveness and productivity. Without the appropriate language skills, adults may struggle to access further training, support their children’s learning and get on in life.

This omission from the speech on Tuesday could be seen as a lost opportunity to place this priority at the heart of Labour’s wider ambition to build a ‘better future’. We await the full details of this missing policy with great interest.

NIACE is keen to work with all parties to ensure that the interventions which do emerge build on our longstanding research and best practice guidance on ESOL. This needs to be an absolute priority for the next Government. Only by bringing forward ESOL as a priority and striving for a true adult learning revolution will this laudable aim of using the talents of all be fully achieved.

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Feeling optimistic about our messages following the Labour Party Conference

September 24, 2014, by David Hughes. filed under Uncategorized; No Comments.
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I always seem to leave Manchester in the sun and it’s happened again as I leave the Labour Party Conference after a couple of fascinating days. We were there to promote our manifesto for a truly lifelong learning society, for the changes we believe are needed if we are to have sustainable and fair economic growth.

The conference this year seemed much more focused than in recent years and there was a clear urgency about the discussions, even some cautious optimism. I was keen to promote the analysis of the challenges we set out in our manifesto and there were plenty of opportunities. I focused on four big issues which point to the need for change. Firstly, that there are only 7 million young people entering the labour market over the next 10 years, but we need 13.5 million jobs to be filled. That contrasts with the focus of Government investment in skills on learning prior to working, or at the beginning of people’s careers.

Secondly, that there is still a huge literacy and numeracy problem in this country and that digital skills needs are now making that even more of a barrier for many people to get on in life and in work.

The third big issue I described is that educational achievement is still highly influenced by socio-economic status and that unless we look at family learning we will continue to have the most disadvantaged children falling behind, even in the very best schools.

The fourth is the need for far more true flexibility and freedom to innovate, to be creative with a focus on the outcomes from learning which we want to see. We need to be less fixated on qualifications as the only measure of achievement and allow for more informal learning to help people get on in learning, life and work.

This last point about freedoms fits well with perhaps the biggest and most exciting topic of debate at the conference – devolution and the West Lothian question. It seems as if some of the fervour and passion which characterised the last few months of campaigning in Scotland in the run-up to the referendum has infected politics in England as well. And we must welcome that with open arms for at least two reasons. The first is that the engagement in the political process in Scotland has given a boost to the idea of citizenship and the hint of a new type of engagement politics which as adult educators we should embrace and encourage. The second reason is because it is through local partnerships and powers that we will see the types of learning and skills offers being made for people of all ages and at all stages of their lives. Our work with LEPs is about using LMI and demographic data to describe learning and skills needs and then through brokerage between colleges and providers with employers and learners to help open up new learning pathways and opportunities.

I should end by saying that our joint fringe event with AoC and 157 Group was packed, with barely enough room for people to stand. Debating how the schools curriculum can change to support children to become lifelong learners certainly attracted people with passionate views. That makes me optimistic about our messages and our purpose; I’m looking forward to more discussion in Birmingham and Glasgow at the next conferences.

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