Investing in adult learning is as important as early years, says former minister

A former Universities and Science Minister has criticised “poor quality neuroscience” for convincing policymakers that people are unable to learn later in life.


Lord David Willetts, who spent 22 years in Parliament, argued at a recent debate on the future of lifelong learning that the returns on investment for educating a 50 year-old could be as great as teaching a three year old.

He was joined by former cabinet minister Lord David Blunkett and Sir Vince Cable, former secretary of state at the Department for Business Innovation and Skills at ‘Lifelong Learning and the Power to Create.’

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David Hughes, Chief Executive of Learning and Work Institute, who chaired the discussion, said, “We know that employers need more people with skills and that adults want to be able to learn, but the system is not working well. We’re working, through our Ambition London project, with employers, learning providers and learners to try out new ways to motivate adults to invest in their own learning, for their benefit and to support higher productivity for employers.”

The event on Tuesday 23 February 2016, was organised by Learning and Work Institute, as well as the charity RSA, which encourages the development of a principled, prosperous society and the release of human potential.

More than 100 attendees from the adult education field were in attendance to hear the views and insights of the three political heavyweights on an agenda often overshadowed by universities and schools issues.​

Hughes added: “The debate raised some really important points about the learning and work agenda, with Lord Blunkett calling for a renewed focus on learning which opens minds rather than simple training for basic or technical skills and Sir Vince talking about the impact of technology on work and the opportunities it presents for new forms of learning.

“I’m confident that we established some key points to take to policy makers to support them in raising the profile of lifelong learning.”

However, Lord Blunkett, education and employment secretary under Tony Blair, described how his green paper on lifelong learning The Learning Age, published 18 years ago today, was one of the most important reports he worked on.

Recent OECD research suggests that there are nine million people in England who lack the lack functional literacy or numeracy needed for them to play an active role in our society.​

The number of people aged 19 and over in further education has declined by one million since 2010 as adult learning has endured significant reductions in public funding. Alongside, the number of mature and part time students in higher education has also declined dramatically

One of the reasons for a decline in participation of adults on further education courses was attributed to the introduction of university-style student loans.

Lord Willetts, who led major reforms in university funding and tuition fees when a minister in the Coalition Government, said that new loans for pre-university adult learning appears to act as a barrier in a way that loans do not for full time university students and that reforms are clearly needed.

The debate content will inform a paper on lifelong learning that is being published by the RSA and Learning and Work Institute in the Spring.

Picture caption: Lord Willetts, Lord David Blunkett and Sir Vince Cable joined David Hughes, CEO of Learning and Work Institute, and Matthew Taylor, CEO of RSA 


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