Making a Reality of Lifelong Training in the Digital Age

One of the first events of the Conservative Party Conference is a warm-up discussion, on Sunday 3rd October, 4.15 – 5.15  in the main auditorium, on the theme of “Making a Reality of Lifelong TRAINING in the Digital Age”. Note that the theme is “Lifelong TRAINING” not “Lifelong Learning” (as per my recent blog).  Also the event is about how to turn aspiration into attainment – not for enthusiasts to exchange dreams. The time for admiring problems is past.

The aim is to build on the ideas that emerged during the recent “Tell Number 10“ consultation, after it emerged that this was one of the top priorities among Conservative Women. This change almost results from a year of lockdown, trying to combine home learning and working, using whatever broadband, equipment and space the family had available, after schools, colleges and universities sent most pupils and student homes and employers cut those training programmes which were not moved on-line.

As the Conservative Science and Technology Forum V-P handling liaison with the Conservative Policy Forum, I was tasked with pulling together the programme for a joint event. Below I summarise the current state of plans for the topics we hope to cover. The actual format and content will depend on the replies to invitations to expand on the ideas already received, plus those to come, including to this blog.

Below is my attempt to summarise the background and outline both the format and the classification currently being used to structure ideas into “points of leverage” and “obstacles to be removed”. Over the next couple of weeks I plan to publish trailers under each heading … and name speakers as they are confirmed.

Then let me know what you think is being left out.


This year has seen a record number of UK students applying to go to University. They will emerge in three or more years to face a tax rate (including student loan repayment) of over 50% – assuming that they find a graduate level job that will TRAIN them with the skills to earn a living. And most of the skills of today have a half-life of barely 18 months. In some jobs (such as front-line cyber security) monthly, even weekly, refreshers are needed.  They are likely to then be even more rebellious than this years’ graduates.

A graduate education is no longer enough. Most graduates will also step onto the treadmill of life-long training, albeit three years after those who left school at 18 – and five years behind those lucky enough to get a place on a graduate level training programme at 16. In one bank the manager of one of the main graduate development programmes is younger than most of those for who training she is responsible!

The challenge to those responsible for skills policy cannot be under-estimated. I balked when I heard an eminent professor say that the Universities had faced more change than in any year since the dissolution of the monasteries. As a former historian I thought of other periods of profound change. But he was probably correct. Most schools were not evacuated in 1939. Most Universities were cushioned by war work. And it took longer to implement the 1944 Education Act than to refound, refund and rebuild most of the Monastic and Chantry Schools and University Houses after the events of 1536/7, as Edward VI Grammars, Guild Schools and Colleges.

The inability of the hierarchies of government, education and academic committees to meet over the past 18 months, other than via Teams or ZOOM, helps explain the problems they have had in recognising, let alone responding to, the scale and nature of the changes now under way or inevitable.

Hence the need for radical thinking, in the knowledge that constructive leadership is unlikely to come from the centre.

The most rational response for politicians is to ratify the consensus of what works, is supported by most parents and can be delivered without too much pain by most schools, colleges and Universities.  The latter are run by those who are more intelligent than most and, freed from constraint, will find better solutions than any outsiders. But that approach is alien to Government Departments and Officials used to more than a century of creeping centralisation and standardisation.

The issue is to begin constructive debate

  • on what is likely to happen,
  • on how to ease the pain of change,
  • on the residual role of government and
  • on what the rest of us should do to help.

Only then can politicians begin to take rational and informed decisions on how to respond, based on which proposals gain traction and demonstrate success.

Hence the reasoning behind the Tell Number 10 consultation and the event on 3rd October.

The discussion on the 3rd October

 The event will be open to all who register for the Conference, including on-line. The introductory speakers are being confirmed but the aim is to use most of the time for “just a minute” contributions from the floor, interspersed with video clips from those unable to be present (deadline 24th September).

The overall aims are:

  • To provide a platform for ministers to say what they are already doing to encourage lifelong training and say what they would like to help them to join up co-operation across departmental/agencies boundaries, including on consultation and engagement with local government and employers.
  • To provide an opportunity for party members, especially those active in local government, employers, professional bodies and trade associations to say how they would like to help join up and build on what is already happening and/or put forward new ideas.
  • To introduce players to each other, with a view to working together afterwards, centrally and/or locally, to produce results – whether via local partnerships or national policy studies

The event will conclude will a call for participants to work with others on the ideas they support, and to make contact accordingly.

Then the “real” work will begin, whether party political or cross party – because this is an area where few of the divides follow party lines.

The six main points of leverage to bring about change

  1. Open access to local community hubs and networks.
  2. Ubiquitous, reliable, secure full fibre broadband and 4/5G cover: inc. regulatory/competition issues.
  3. Joined up skills identities, passports and training (inc. learning) accounts.
  4. Joined up responsibility for policy, possibly for funding, but not for delivery
  5. Support for partnerships not for silos or silo’d projects
  6. Focus attention on modules rather than programmes

The six main obstacles to constructive change

  1.  Centralised Haldane Style planning and control (self-perpetuating oligopolies)
  2. Lack of cross silo/discipline/boundary co-operation
  3. Protectionism: let the future compete with the past on equal terms
  4. Lack of informed choice: for pupils, parents, students and employers
  5. IR35 and other tax and employment distortions
  6. Confusing length of time with quality (of learning, training, experience)

I look forward to hearing from readers as to other points of leverage and/or obstacles and what YOU think is needed to help bring about equal and open access to the world of lifelong training.

I should add that I too am interesting in life-long learning but that is not enough. It can be a gateway to training but learning the theory of tennis is not sufficient to produce a winner, let alone a champion.

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