Lifelong learning will matter more than ever as we look to recover from Covid-19

Gordon Marsden

The past 12 months have been deeply traumatic for all those who look towards the Labour Party. There has been the turmoil and churn in parliament over Brexit, the consequences of which are paused by the coronavirus pandemic but yet to be played out. And there was the devastating result of the December general election, which dashed the hopes of so many who wanted Labour to repair the damage of a decade of austerity.

Now, even while Labour has been enduring necessary though painful soul-searching in our leadership elections, we find ourselves focused on a cruel, existential threat to all of our lives. One that has rightly stopped all the clocks of conventional politics and campaigning. But in that last year of traumas, something remarkable has happened within our party that offers a positive shaft of hope for our country’s recovery after Covid-19.

As part of Labour’s promise for a National Education Service, we launched a Lifelong Learning Commission. In the space of just eight months, it delivered a process that cut through traditional silos in higher and further education and skills. Silos that have left so many behind, along with disastrous government policies, and have produced nearly a million lost adult learners since 2010.

As the shadow minister for those areas, and a former Open University tutor, I was proud to put together and work with our 14 commissioners drawn from right across the sector. Chaired by former Labour Education Secretary Estelle Morris and CWU general secretary Dave Ward, we worked at a cracking pace with remarkable conviviality and passion to produce last November’s final report and recommendations reflecting the very best of Labour’s historic aspirations.

Those aspirations include the 1945 manifesto that advocated education to create “individual citizens capable of thinking for themselves”; the founding of the Open University and expansion of higher and technical education in the 1960s; the party’s vision of a “learning age” after the 1997 election triumph; and the NES principles now embedded in party policy.

The commission set out a radical vision for Labour of collaboration across all learning areas, with immediate pledges and priorities as well as a clear direction of travel to steer us through to 2030. Those pledges included a public duty for all policy makers to consider their impact on lifelong learning and social justice and a universal, publicly funded right to learn throughout life – underpinned by a minimum entitlement to fully-funded provision up to level three and the equivalent of six years’ publicly funded credits at level four.

Further pledges include a right to paid time off for workers to re-skill and retrain, as well as a comprehensive information, advice and guidance provided by a national careers and training service. This would be available for learners at all ages, and maintenance grants would be made available as appropriate to facilitate access to learning.

The recommendations spell out costed, practical and achievable goals. They aim to deliver outcomes to progress our economy, communities and individuals. They would be embedded in structures able to accredit, as the Open University is. Both formal and informal learning – on line and face to face – would take place, teaching specific, as well as enabling, skills. They would empower the UK to be a beacon of educational excellence, both at home and worldwide.

And the proposals from the commission represent a complete departure from the last decade, which has seen access to educational opportunities severely rationed, public funding replaced by fees and loans, the loss of vital community assets, and attempts to position education as a private commodity rather than as a public good.

That’s why, with my support and that of the co-chairs Ward and Morris, the commission wrote to all the candidates for Labour leader and deputy leader to emphasise how key these proposals could help us achieve many of our broader aims. Strengthened citizens’ rights, greater productivity, dignity in old age, fairer work and higher level of skills, for example.

At a time when Labour is thinking deeply about how we communicate our values, the commission’s ideas provide a way to reach out and talk to people about what they need from us to improve their lives – giving hope to those that have been left behind because of where they live, their economic position or other forms of inequalities.

The same cannot be achieved by the market-driven management that has often dominated Whitehall. We need to devolve many of these initiatives, in the spirit of the democratic principles of the NES. That includes working with progressive combined authorities, mayors and other competent institutions on the ground, especially Labour ones.

It should also include opportunities for trade union involvement, utilising their strong local networks with union learning reps and looking at the success of the Union Learning Fund set up by the previous Labour government. Major union leaders such as Tim Roache of the GMB and Ward at the CWU have emphasised how crucial such initiatives, in concert with the TUC, can be.

Let’s use the current situation to trial some of the commission’s proposals in local pilots: “Joining up the ‘learning links’ between different policy areas and providers,” as one of our commissioners Matt Waddup argued in a TES article last month. Throughout its history, the Labour Party has developed some of its most effective policies on health, social care and employment through local government initiatives. Theses have enabled us to then win power nationally and roll them out further. The overwhelming challenges, changes and urgent imperatives to adapt during the coronavirus crisis make these lifelong learning proposals even more relevant.

Writing in the Times Higher Education in mid-March, another one of our commissioners Graeme Atherton pointed out that the proposed approach to giving information, advice and guidance to learners of all ages could come via a personalised digital platform. With the current deliverers of skills, higher and further education feeling fragile as they try to adjust to survival in a digital mode – as are the learners – there is much to take from what the commission has to say about blended and online learning. These are practical things that could be looked at right now.

Some combined authorities, elected mayors and other councils with capacity are already starting to deliver adult education services, and are funding local providers to keep going – which is great. They might also consider how to link up with the Open University and other online groups to both preserve and expand their current activities.

Action to “train the trainers” is another key proposal from the commission, with online initiatives that promote and accumulate one-stop ideas and examples being key to this. Commissioner Vicky Duckworth, who has been undertaking in-depth research with disadvantaged would be adult learners, has set up with her colleague Rob Smith a platform hosted by UCU – entitled “Further Education – Transforming Lives and Communities” – to assist this.

Back in 2013, my parliamentary colleague Roberta Blackman-Woods and I produced for the Smith Institute a report, “Apprenticeships – how local government is making a difference”. It examined the many initiatives that local councils – mainly Labour – had set up for brokering or taking on apprentices. Since then, sadly most of these have been lost through relentless government funding cuts – but we can and should rediscover them.

Because it is not just adults that have been affected by the closure of face-to-face courses or being laid off from their work due to coronavirus. Apprentices, both young and old, are being laid off with little clarity as to how they will be able to resume them. We need to look at and think now about where we, as a party, should go when lockdown lifts. When that happens, it will not be ‘business as usual’ – and nor should it be.

The mindset, not just in education but across civil society, may well have changed – both around the role of the public sector and what constitutes the public good. Innovative, local working together across sectors in the circumstances brought about by the coronavirus pandemic may well prompt a step-change in our over-centralised institutions. Covid-19 may well bring about a radical rethink about the so-called benefits of competition, as opposed to collaboration, that have held sway across higher and further education for nearly 30 years.

As Angela Rayner, with whom I was proud to serve in the education team and who has been a great supporter of the commission’s work, has said: “Education is about more than numbers – it’s about people like me whose lives are transformed by learning.” What we will need desperately after the present trauma will be the promise of hope to people, to the many thousands who will need to re-skill, retrain, change track and need help to be rehabilitated. The Lifelong Learning Commission proposals offer clear points of entry, and a hefty tool kit to engage not just existing members and supporters, but with wider communities and groups right across our country. That is why they should be up front in the (virtual) in tray of our new leadership.

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