Emerging lessons from the crisis for the post-16 sector

As for all parts of the education system, the Covid-19 crisis has been an unprecedented challenge for the adult learning sector. Each part of the sector has faced unique challenges: whether the prospect of a significant drop in students at our universities, the urgency of completing vocational qualifications in FE, a changed model of delivering with employers for work-based learners, or a changed model for community learning to support and engage with learners.

We have worked with the sector to understand what we can learn from the crisis and how we can use the experience to reshape support for learners and to widen access (full report).

There is no doubt this is a crisis that will have long term implications for the sector, but there are also positive opportunities to develop new ways to widen access and a new dimension to the challenge of delivering a right to lifelong learning. There has been an acceleration to greater online and blended learning and far deeper collaborative decision making has taken place across the sector. Staff responded innovatively to the early stages of the crisis and found ways to continue learning and to engage with learners. This was all often done at pace, through ad hoc structures, and by staff adapting and learning as they went on.

There is clear, emerging evidence the crisis is having an unequal impact on different groups of learners. The anecdotal evidence is that those groups facing the most significant barriers are at greatest risk of being pushed even further to the margins. Digital poverty and home environments that are not conducive to learning risk exacerbating existing inequalities further. A clearer picture is starting to emerge, but more research is needed to understand the experiences of learners and they will need a structured role in reshaping the sector for the future.

While staff have responded with innovative ways to teach and to engage learners, there is concern that provision developed at pace at the start of the crisis will not be fit for purpose for the long-term. A rapid extension of professional learning – directed by practitioner need and accessible to all parts of the sector, including adult community learning – will be an essential component of ensuring the sector has the skills they need to deliver high-quality blended and online learning. The kind of change required won’t happen overnight, but it won’t happen at all without investment in people.

Finally, while this public health emergency has created a crisis in all parts of society and our economy, there are long term challenges that cannot go unaddressed.  Our low skills base, access to learning, or inequalities in the labour market are long-term structural challenges that are made more urgent by Covid-19.

The decision by Welsh Government not to pursue legislation to create a new strategic body for the post-16 sector will leave a key recommendation of the Hazlekorn Review undelivered.  The fallout from Covid-19 makes the other key recommendation from that report – to ‘develop an overarching vision for the post-compulsory education system for Wales’ – more important and urgent than ever. The pandemic will change very many aspects of our lives and it is vital we learn the lessons to start reshaping and improved our skills and adult learning system.