Wirral MP voices concern over government’s approach to adult education and skills

Margaret Greenwood MP has said in parliament that “investment in education and skills is crucial for the future of our economy and wider society” and that adopting too narrow an approach will not serve the country well. 

The Wirral West MP was speaking in a debate on skills and labour shortages. Her intervention comes after a report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that even though total spending on adult skills in England is set to increase by 22% between 2019-20 and 2024-25, this only reverses a fraction of past government cuts. Total adult skills spending in 2024-25 will still be 22% below 2009-10 levels, while spending on classroom-based adult education has fallen even more and will still be 40% below 2009-10 levels. 

The government recently consulted on proposals to “re-orientate the vision for non-qualification provision” in adult education in areas of England funded by the Education and Skills Agency (ESFA), which account for about 40% of adult education provision. These are areas that do not have metro mayors like the Liverpool City Region. 

The government is proposing that, in future, all non-qualification provision in adult education in such areas should meet at least one of the following objectives: 

  • achieving employment outcomes for all learners 
  • achieving progression to further learning that moves individuals closer to the labour market, for all learners 
  • helping those with learning difficulties and/or disabilities to support their personal development and access to independent living. 

Margaret Greenwood said that, although all of those are hugely important, stakeholders are understandably concerned about what this might mean for people who need longer to gain their confidence or who require support with basic skills to progress into work. 

In the Liverpool City Region adult learning is devolved, so the Combined Authority is responsible for funding learners within its area. It is also responsible for the funding approach taken and for the outcomes achieved with this funding. 

The Wirral West MP pointed to a “cultural shift” by the governmentat national level towards a narrower focus on solely vocational skills. She voiced concerns that this could “significantly reduce opportunities for adults to learn in subjects that they can enjoy and that can bring them benefits that are not necessarily employment-related.”    

In the debate, Margaret Greenwood, a former adult education tutor herself, paid tribute to the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) which, as well as helping adults to gain the skills they need to get into work and to improve their prospects, also helps those who are often far away from the labour market to develop skills to cope with social isolation, to improve their physical and mental health and to acquire a love of learning by helping them to develop interests and connections with the communities around them. 

Speaking after the debate, Margaret Greenwood MP said, “At a time when we have an ageing society and increasing problems of loneliness, it cannot be right for the government to propose measures that have the potential to remove community-based learning opportunities which people can pursue for enjoyment and personal development.  

“I am concerned that ministers seem to be focusing intensely on skills for jobs, to the detriment of education as a whole.  

“Education gives people the opportunity to develop and explore things that are of interest to them. Indeed, many adult learners do not decide to take up a course because it might help them get into work or progress in their careers – many go to build their confidence or to meet new friends and form relationships. 

“To narrow the focus of adult education and skills in the way that the government is proposing is to leave us much poorer culturally.  

“Unless adults are provided with a good range of opportunities in their communities, we are not harnessing the talents of everyone in the country, and we are depriving people of the opportunity to become the very best that they can. 

“There is also a particular need to focus on basic skills if we are to improve our economic outlook. 

“We do not know what the workforce of the future will look like. However, we know that with more automation and artificial intelligence, some sectors will change beyond recognition. It is clear that we need to think very carefully about the skills strategy. 

“The cuts to adult education of the last twelve years have denied people the opportunity to learn. 

“The government must reinvest in adult education so that people can have the opportunities to improve both their skills and their wellbeing through education at all stages of life.” 

To find out about adult education opportunities in Wirral, visit https://www.wirral.gov.uk/schools-and-learning/adult-learning 

Image: Kenny Eliason

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