Adult learning and social mobility: the state of Britain

The Social Mobility Commission (SMC) has published its most recent ‘state of the nation report‘, in which it concludes that social mobility in England is stalled. It provides evidence to support this claim, and then goes on to consider a number of reasons for this stagnation, with recent changes in the education system being the largest.

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Their analysis encompasses adult learning, where the Commission has a number of criticisms of current policy as well as constructive suggestions for the future. Some of these come in discussions of other educational sectors; their discussion of early years education, for instance, looks at qualifications and career structures for the (overwhelmingly female) workforce, and at the importance of family learning in giving small children a strong start; the section on further education also looks at teacher recruitment issues.

When it comes to adult education and training, the Commission draws heavily on its own study of the adult skills gap, which it issued in January 2019. This showed that the least skilled are the least well placed to access opportunities for upskilling, at a time when the fourth industrial revolution is starting to impact most on the least skilled jobs.

The most highly educated, meanwhile, find it relatively easy to refresh their skills and qualifications. The report notes that this appears to be as true of open education programmes such as MOOCs as it is of more conventional opportunities. The consequences, if things are left as they are, will be that adult learning serves as a block to social mobility rather than an enabler.

And all of this following a period in which, as the Commission notes, ‘almost all forms of adult education are in decline’. They produce figures showing that the UK spends two-thirds of the EU average on adult training, well below that of such comparable economies as Germany and France. They show that regional imbalances increase problems of accessing training, and note that those who are most likely to move between regions are the most advantaged. While the new national retraining scheme for England may have potential, they note that it will need to be both large and highly targeted if it is to have the impact required.

While the SMC has no remit to improve social mobility in Wales and Scotland, it notes that while challenges remain, neither has seen the same stagnation as is evident recently for England. They note that the Scottish Government has reponded to a steep decline in on-the-job training with a £10m in-work training programme, while the Welsh Government’s employment policies include proposals for skills and training.

So far as England is concerned, the SMC’s main recommendation for adult learning is that the Government should follow the action plan set out in the SMC’s report in January 2019, and in particular that it should ‘equalise adult education funding with EU statistical averages and reduce the underspend of its adult education budget through more flexible funding structures’. The new regional combined authorities have powers to achieve greater flexibility, but it will be for national overnment to release additional spending.

Clearly, then, the report offer much to encourage those of us interested in adult learning. Of course it focuses largely on adult learning for or in work, but that is for the obvious reason that our occupations tend to shape our life chances. More seriously, the current obsession with Brexit among politicians of all colours probably means that the SMC’s report will have a marginal influence on policy in the immediate term.

But with several committees of inquiry beavering away currently on lifelong learning policy, the SMC has provided further evidence of the wider benefits and policy importance of adult learning. It also provides fresh food for lobbying and advocacy at local and regional level.

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Lifelong learning and social mobility in Europe – a blank page?

 

One of the European Commission’s agencies has just published a very interesting and informative report on social mobility in the EU. The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound) has drawn on existing studies and surveys to provide an overview and comparison of the EU member states. It finds that European societies have generally converged in this area, with marked changes in gender patterns; it also suggests that recent trends in social mobility vary considerably by country and gender.

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I found this a valuable contribution, and as you would expect with a state agency it concludes with a series of policy recommendations. It rightly calls for further research to help shed light on national differences in recent trends, as well as for further debate over which indicators might best help us understand patterns of social mobility.

Its call to prioritise men in Generation X is likely to be controversial, but is based on evidence showing decreasing life chances among men born after 1964. It identifies early selection in education and residential segregation as major causes of  social closure, issues of particular concern in the UK.

This is all well and good. But I was shocked to see that lifelong education appears precisely twice in the report, both times in respect of policies for opening up labour market opportunities. There is no mention of evidence on the social mobility benefits of family learning or adult retraining or second-chance entry to higher education. Some of the findings around family learning interventions were summarised in our recent report for the UK Government’s Foresight project on the future of skills and lifelong learning, so it isn’t exactly inaccessible.

I suspect that the authors of the Eurofound study – and their distinguished advisory panel – simply didn’t see lifelong learning as much of an issue. They should have done, but I also think we can and should do much more to make sure that the benefits of adult learning are much more widely acknowledged. In this case, “we” comprises both the adult learning research community and the large number of reflective practitioners in our field, both of whom need to engage much more systematically with (a) policy-makers and (b) researchers in cognate disciplines. Insularity does none of us any favours.

 

Can you promote social mobility without supporting adult learning?

Last December, the Government invited Universities UK to lead an investigation into improving social mobility through higher education. UUK duly created an advisory group on social mobility, chaired by its chief executive Nicola Dandridge, which aims to deliver its report to the Government, outlining a series of strategic goals for 2020, in May 2016.

The advisory group has now held its first meeting. It started by defining its remit, which is now probably rather broader than the Government initially intended. It has decided to explore not just who gets in to university, but also how they get on at university, and what happens to them after they graduate. This reflects a growing awareness that non-traditional students are not only disadvantaged at point of entry, but continue to be penalised throughout the student life cycle and beyond.

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Published record of the Advisory Group’s first meeting

The group also decided that it needed to consider ‘all underrepresented groups in higher education, including mature and part-time students’. Again, there is some evidence that mature and part-time students face continuing penalties beyond graduation, though this is an area that requires futher research. And of course, mature and part-time students are more likely to be parents themselves, whose commitment to lifelong learning provides a model for their children.

What the net effect of this is on social mobility, though, is largely unknown, not least because part-time and mature learners tend to be most numerous in those universities which have the least prestigious images. Nevertheless, I expect and hope to see some strong proposals around mature and part-time study, both of which have declined significantly in recent years.

The advisory group proper includes a number of people who have experience and expertise in adult and part-time learning, including Professor Les Ebdon, Director of the Office for Fair Access; Professor Geoff Layer, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Wolverhampton; Peter Horrocks, Vice-Chancellor of The Open University; and Prof Mary Stuart, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Lincoln.

The practitioner reference group, chaired by Mary Stuart, also includes a number of members with adult education backgrounds, notably Nadira Mirza, Director of Student Success at the University of Bradford and Treasurer of the Universities Association of Lifelong Learning. While it is harder to spot similar expertise among the researcher reference group, they are bound to be concerned over the absence of much systematic analysis of post-graduation outcomes for mature and part-time learners.

Of course, the report is only of direct relevance to England, though the problems it is tackling are equally relevant in Scotland and Wales. Even in England, the Government may not be delighted that the UUK group has widened its remit in this way, and institutional managers may also try to resist any shift of focus away from the most low-maintenance groups of students (namely young entrants straight from school). Clearly there is still a lot left to play for.

To answer my own question, it is perfectly conceivable to develop policies for social mobility that do not involve adult learning. My own view is that this would be short-sighted, and that targeted support for second and third chance learning is a good way of promoting fairer access to top positions. So far, the signs are promising.