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24 January 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:27pm

We lacked guts in government, but Labour today should be bold on adult learning

A former New Labour cabinet minister on the education challenge for 2018. 

By David Blunkett

As Labour develops its plans for a truly National Education Service, it will need to think about more than just the money to pay for it.

It is always possible to divert resources from other priorities to fund full-time school or post-school education – the traditional route that most of those devising policy themselves accessed learning. But it is far more difficult to cater for those approaching education later in life and accessing it in what many might consider to be “unconventional” ways.

My own education (and much of what I saw in my early adult life in Sheffield) is a case in point. There were evening classes at further education college, and day release from work (with my wages and fees paid by the employer). I studied alongside many in the city who were benefiting from the construction and engineering levies which paid for both part and full-time tuition, alongside apprenticeships for learning on the job. 

Today, many people access learning in all kinds of ways, throughout their lives. The shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, is a classic example of someone entering adult learning from what can only be described (and as I was very similar I can say this) as an incredible back story. Angela, like me, understands that when it comes to lifelong learning there will be many and varied routes by which people re-enter the education system, and where the traditional offer does not necessarily fit the bill.

Online learning, linked with tuition and associated with the workplace or the potential for in-work progression, offers a flexible and meaningful road to success. But it does not fit with simplistic funding channels or neat solutions.

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A modern Labour party approaching the third decade of the 21st century must not, if it is to succeed, offer a top-down approach.

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That is why, a decade ago, the late Labour MP and academic Malcolm Wicks returned to an idea which we had endeavoured to promote at the turn of the century: individual learning accounts. The idea was to offer a flexible way of helping people both to progress in work or to return to learn.

In the 1998 policy paper The Learning Age, we wanted a way to encourage individuals to be able to learn whilst ensuring that both society (through government) and employers – who were benefiting – made a contribution in cash or in-kind. Sadly, the government – and I carry some responsibility for this – was not bold enough.

The Treasury objected to anything that was out of line with its own thinking – which was of course deeply affected by the experience of civil servants; few of whom, if any, had been through further education, never mind an apprenticeship.

Instead of an imaginative and creative approach to building up accounts which could be drawn down on, specifically to fund education, the Treasury insisted on what amounted to a voucher system that could be redeemed for particular types of learning. These included programmes of learning being sold by companies and individuals. It amounted to a rip-off, and I’m afraid it set back a flexible lifelong approach for decades.

Then, of course, the Conservatives came up with the idea of the employer levy. This would have been a bold move, if it had been implemented very differently from what has actually happened. Instead of the money being made available to incentivise employers to support and work with individuals re-entering learning, the levy is now almost exclusively going back into the very companies that paid the levy. This is usually to cover costs that they would have incurred in the first place.

The result has been catastrophic. We have experienced a further massive drop in part-time learning, on top of the calamitous fall from the changes brought in 2012, which raised the cap for part-time student fees. Full-time apprenticeships have plummeted, particularly among younger people. The levy has therefore failed dismally to achieve the objectives set out, and at a time of austerity, done absolutely nothing to encourage the take-up of further education beyond the age of 18.

As set out in the Fabian Society’s new Life Lessons report, the National Education Service should be an offer which puts the learner rather than the provider in charge. It should ensure too that employers have to pay their fair share towards the gains they make from an ever-increasingly educated workforce, and offer government a way of facing the challenge of increasingly dominant technology, with all the opportunities and challenges that artificial intelligence and robotics will pose over the coming decades.