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.

How can we explain the UK’s strong performance in the European Adult Education Survey?

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Preliminary results from the 2016 European Adult Education Survey (AES) suggest that participation across most of Europe is rising. I’ve already taken a look at the figures for Austria, which show a surge in participation following rthe adoption of a national policy for lifelong learning in 2011. But the figures for the UK are equally striking: if the AES is to be believed, participation in the UK rose from 35.8% in 2011 to 52.1% in 2016.

As Tom Schuller pointed out in a comment on my post, the UK’s performance is something of a puzzle. Recent years have seen significant cutbacks in all forms of public adult education provision in all four UK nations. The Learning and Work Institute, which monitors participation rates over time, last year described the continuing falls in participation in all forms of publicly funded adult learning as ‘disastrous’. So what might explain the UK’s strong showing in AES?

First, the AES is confined to adults aged 25-64; the European Commission considers this group a priority because it is of prime standard working age. It is likely, in my view, that cuts in publicly funded adult education impact most heavily on the retired, who do not have access to workplace learning.

Second, the AES is a household survey and covers all participation in the twelve months prior to interview. By contrast, the European Labour Force Survey is a workplace survey which covers training in the previous four weeks. According to the LFS, training participation in the UK fell from 20.5% in 2011 to 18.8% in 2016 (though the LFS shows an even sharper fall between 2010 and 2011).

Third, the AES divides adult learning into ‘formal’ and ‘non-formal’. Its definitions of these terms follows the UNESCO International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED). Formal education and training comprise ‘education that is institutionalised, intentional and planned through public organisations and recognised private bodies and – in their totality – constitute the formal education system of a country’, and which is ‘recognised as such by the relevant national education authorities’.

Non-formal education ‘may include for example learning events (activities) that occur in the family, in the work place, and in the daily life of every person, on a self-directed, family-directed or socially-directed basis’, and ‘may cover educational programmes to impart adult literacy, life-skills, work-skills, and general culture’.

In the case of the UK, the AES found a huge rise in participation in non-formal education – from 24.3% to 47.5% between 2011 and 2016; at the same time, participation in formal ecucation and training fell, from 14.8% to 11.9%. In other words, the UK rise in overall participation is due entirely to growth in non-formal learning rather than formal education and training. The Survey also suggests that the growth was particularly strng in job-related non-formal education and training, while non-job-related participation showed a small decline.

This leads me to wonder whether what we are witnessing in the UK is a growth in overall participation rates, combined with a fall in the quality and depth (and cost) of activities. The AES offers some support for this hypothesis, in that it shows a clear drop in the duration of learning: the average time sent by UK participants overall fell from 167 hours in 2011 to 121 hours in 2016. The fall was particlarly marked in the average time spent by participants in formal education and training.

So perhaps an apparent growth in UK participation doesn’t translate simply into more learning going on, but rather a redistribution of opportunity – and thinning of resources.

Any other suggestions out there? Am I daft in ignoring the possibility that AES has got it right, and against all expectations the UK is experiencing a lifelong learning renaissance? Or are the survey results just a blip?

Incidentally, in case you’re wondering, the UK’s participation in the AES doesn’t necessarily end with Brexit. Non-EU member states taking part include Norway, Serbia, Switzerland and Turkey. Brexit will complicate matters, though: as members of a federal state, it will probably fall to each individual national government – which is where responsibility for education policy lies – to decide whether to continue co-funding AES in the future.

What’s happening in workplace learning?

French labour market researchers at the CEGOS Observatory have just released their annual survey of training in Europe. It involves a reasonable size sample (2,470 workers in six countries) and the findings suggest that participation is holding up reasonably well in the recession, though the authors speak of ‘a French and Spanish sickness’. They also confirm the integration of new technologies and social media into workplace learning is increasing apace, and that those who are already highly educated continue to receive the most training.

So far as Britain is concerned, the findings broadly support those who argue that our workplace learning system is comparatively strong. Workers in Britain were most likely to:

  • report participation in distance learning and blended learning
  • receive information about training from their manager
  • say that they have benefited from training.

They were least likely to claim that training had been imposed on them, though not by much. In Italy, 38% said they generally had training imposed on them by their employer, as against 35% in Germany, 32% in France and 31% in Britain. Even though most workers said that they were able to suggest training activities for themselves, the survey finds that more training results from employer instructions than from dialogue and negotiation. This is more surprising for countries like France and Germany, where work councils are well established, than it is in Britain, whose labour market is less tightly regulated.

A summary of the CEGOS findings can be downloaded at: http://www.cegos.fr/actualites/Pages/enquete-formation-professionnelle-en-europe-2013.aspx