What about adult education?

Against a backdrop of budget cuts, restructures, and in some cases course and centre closures, you might think there is little to celebrate for those of us passionate about lifelong learning. However, this week, as we enter Adult Learners’ Week 2015, we will be doing just that; celebrating the remarkable stories of adults who have turned their lives around through learning – and reminding decision makers of the impact of learning on people’s lives.

Each year, NIACE Cymru works with providers across education and training in Wales to celebrate the achievements of adult learners, and to promote learning opportunities to new learners. But this year has perhaps been the toughest any of those involved have seen.

In year cuts to apprenticeship places and the virtual disappearance of apprenticeships for over 25s; a 50% budget cut to part-time provision in further education; the scrapping of the family learning budget, and further cuts to community learning. Across the board, opportunities for adults to re-train, up skill and rediscover a love of learning are in decline.

Couple these cuts with a review of higher education funding, the introduction of a new skills plan and ‘co-investment’, and it’s been a year of pretty drastic change for adult learning. Recognising this, in February, NIACE Cymru ran the Festival of Dangerous Ideas to challenge people to think of new ways of delivering learning to adults. There were dangerous ideas a-plenty, but we must continue to push boundaries and find new ways of working to meet the challenge.

We don’t have all the answers, but we need to find them quickly. The alternative, as we warned back in the spring, is that adult learning as we know it may cease to exist, without a clear idea of what the future holds.

How can we change?

Firstly, we (that’s all of us; practitioners, government, business) must recognise the full scale of the challenge. UK employers will need to fill 13.5 million vacancies in the next 10 years, but only 7 million young people will leave education over that period. That’s a huge gap between demand and supply! We know that some of that gap will be closed by immigration, but if we pull the blanket out from underneath those adults that do want to learn, how do we fill the rest?

We know that a lack of basic skills is often still an issue in Wales, but are we only seeing the tip of the iceberg? Welsh Government withdrew its entry into PIAAC – the international survey of adult skills – in 2012, and didn’t enter the latest round in 2014. Are they brave enough to get to grips with the true scale of numeracy, literacy and digital skills challenge we face when the next round comes around? The results of entering PISA have completely refocused Welsh Government’s policies and practices on secondary education, and the PIAAC results could perhaps be even more of an eye opener!

And once those initial hurdles have been overcome, we need everyone pushing in the same direction. Businesses are vital – Learning at Work Day on June 18th will showcase some of the great work they are already doing – but the fact remains that some businesses choose not to invest in training their workforce. Is it outside of government’s gift to intervene? The First Minister has mooted the idea of training levies previously but we must seriously consider how they work in an economy that is dominated by small business.

Despite these challenges, providers across Wales are taking part in NIACE’s campaign, and there will be around 400 adult learning events across Wales this Adult Learners’ Week! From coding clubs in Conwy to managing money masterclasses in Merthyr, there is resilience in the sector, and organisations and individuals who are adapting to the challenges every single day. I think that’s something worth celebrating, don’t you?

To take part in Adult Learners’ Week, please visit www.niacecymru.org.uk