Making a reality of Lifelong learning for the Digital Age

From January until April this year the Conservative Policy Forum ran a joint exercise with the Conservative Women’s Organisation to identity the issues on which female voters most wished to “Tell Number 10” their views. Perhaps unsurprisingly, after a year of wrestling with home learning, education came top. Subjects like tax, immigration and Brexit/Europe were well down.

The Conservative Policy Forum is therefore running a consultation, deadline for inputs 5th September, to widen the consultation and put flesh on proposals with regard to:

  • Promoting Lifelong Learning
  • Supporting family Life
  • Addressing the adult social care challenge.

On 1st September I am due to convene a ZOOM for my local constituency CPF Group to collate views on all three. On 2nd September there is a non-geographic  Conservative Science and Technology Forum ZOOM. This is mainly to collate views on lifelong learning, building on previous work by CSTF, although it will also accept inputs on the impact of technology (including social media and home-learning etc.) on family life and on the use of technology (e.g. Lilli) to improve the quality and reduce the cost of adult social care.

I first addressed the topic of Lifelong Learning back in 1982 when I was asked by the late Donald  Michie, to address the impacts of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics (then undergoing a seriously premature bout of hype as a threat to employment) on the world of education. I topped and tailed the original text (republished here in 2017) with political recommendations for publication by the Bow Group as  “Learning for Change”. It sold out after a vitriolic review in the Times Educational Supplement which condemned it as a “cheats charter” and an “assault on academic values”.

By 1996 and the “European Year of Lifelong Learning”, the subject was becoming fashionable, but there was little action to turn concept into reality. Sir Leon Brittan. godfather of EURIM (now the DPA) asked for a succinct briefing on the use of educational technology to help break the policy . The result was “Reskilling Europe for the Information Society”.

Today, after a year in which the UK Education and Training system has seen more change than in any year since the dissolution of the Monasteries , lifelong learning is again fashionable. The on-line world is awash with on-line education and training materials from “uncurated” global sites such Udemy (155,000 offerings), through sectoral sites (like Cybrary), free sites (like the National Careers Service) and curated (quality controlled and structured) sites like that of the London Grid for Learning.  But the market has failed to take off and has been described as a confusopoly.

It is full of material produced by subject experts and enthusiasts rather than those who understand the  wishes and needs of their target audiences (if they have thought about who they are) let alone how and when they wish to learn, which channels they would like use and what support, whether subject mentoring or technology assistance, they want or are willing to pay for. It is not a mature market.

The Government response to the recommendations of the Education Select Committee report “A plan for an adult skills and lifelong learning revolution” demonstrated that officials working from home during lockdown could not get their heads round the resultant issues, any more than the select committee.

I have therefore agreed to help organise an event at the Conservative Party Conference on 3rd October, to build on what have been done over the past year and what comes out of the current “Tell Number 10” consultation and look at what needs to be done to make a reality of lifelong learning for the Internet Age.

Helping students and employers make sense of the Lifelong Learning confusopoly

I have just begun looking at possible topics and speakers and have so far come up with:

  1. Joining up and rationalising existing programmes:

A key recommendation from the CSTF ZOOM on Post–Covid Skills policy last year was to ensure that  public sector support programmes are fit for purpose, sustainable and intelligible. “There are many support programmes on offer, pre-existing and new. The combination looks great, but making sense of it is not easy, either for employers or applicants. How could/should they choose which to use? For support programmes to achieve their objective they must be intelligible to the target audiences and make sense to their advisors.”  This applies to the many work experience, training and support programmes and their links to the equally many and varied work experience, apprenticeships and modular update programmes funded and organised via BEIS, DCSM, DfE, DHCLG, DWP (Restart), Home Office etc. and their agencies and partners. I recently sat in on a workshop organised by the Open University and the Digital Policy Alliance to begin mapping the many programmes and their funding/regulatory departments and agencies. My brain hurt. There is also a need to join up (and/or permit the private sector to join up) educational identities (pupil number, student number, skills passports etc.).

  1. Providing lifelong access hubs in every community

DfE failed to reply to the Education Select Committee recommendation for a community learning centre in every town. There are now fewer community learning hubs that there were forty years ago. We has seen the retreat of most community colleges into conventional schooling in the face of insurance, safeguarding, staffing and other regulatory requirements. We have also seen the take-over and merger of the smaller FE colleges, unable to afford the investment in equipment and staff to handle changes to modular, hands-on, blended learning and training necessary to retain revenues from local and national employers.

Meanwhile, however, partnerships like the ongoing, growing and deepening relationship between Siemens and Lincoln University and those between Wildern School and local Universities, Colleges and Sports Academies demonstrate what can be achieved. We can also see the achievement of the Career Colleges , University Technical Colleges and the networks bringing together  Universities, Colleges and Schools in for example Birmingham and Bolton. In rural areas many village halls and community centres act as overflow classrooms and learning outreach centres, with specialist multi-use insurance (e.g. the Norris and Fisher ViIlage Halls Policy from Ansvar) and guidance from ACRE on how to comply with the semi-conflicting “guidance” from those regulating the various different uses. There is muich that can be built on.

  1. Employer and community driven local and national skills partnerships

Here the need is to build on the efforts of the Career and Enterprise Company, the LEPs, the Grids for Learning and their partners (e.g. Reed in Partnership for the DWP Restart areas for which it has the contracts) and those organising STEM Hubs , Cyber Hubs and similar initiatives, to join up local and national efforts to help pupils, parents, workers, employers and training providers to make informed choices. There are, course, many sectoral exercises (e.g the DCMS Digital Skills Partnership) Those choices, collated via industry strength market research, should then inform central and local government “policy” and priorities, instead of vice versa.

  1. Levelling up, with added support (including to ensure affordable on-line access) for deprived, rural, coastal areas, those in social housing etc.

This is critically dependant on the investment plans of those who are building the full fibre networks to connect business and schools and support telemedicine and care as well as home-based learning and working. The BT funded share of that investment is falling. Hence the need to review the role and priorities of Ofcom, including the way it is still blocking business models (e.g. shared infrastructure investment and/or up front charges/contracts for 3 – 5 years to remove investment risk) common to other parts of the world.

  1. The role of Government

The Silos of State and their agencies and Haldane style advisory committees were unable to cope with the pace of change even before Covid. They have now been overwhelmed. The best they can achieve is to help ease the pain of change by helping improve the sharing of information on what has been shown to work and the pre-conditions for success, so that those in the front-line can respond accordingly. The worst is to try to preserve frameworks and processes that constrain current and future choices to that which makes life easier for the current vested interests (who dominate their advisory committees and consultation processes) administrators but is in the interests of neither students nor employers.

We should not, however, under-estimate the challenge that change of role presents to Minister and Officials. It is nearly as great as the challenge of asking them to co-operate across departmental and agency boundaries when this is against almost all public sector (and academic) motivation and career structures. It would be easier to recommendation the merger of the BEIS Higher Education functions and agencies with those of DfE as a new Department of Lifelong Learning. But that would result in years of intra-departmental infighting over the arrangement of the deck chairs on the Titanic. Instead we have to find,  implement and enforce ways of actively rewarding co-operation and promoting those with track records of success.

  1. Allow and enable lifelong learning for employment purposes to be fully offset against tax.

I wrote extensively on this in the 1996 IT Skills Trends report, in response to questions asked by the then Shadow Chancellor, Gordon Brown. His attempt to pilot the recommendation was comprehensively sabotaged by DfE officials, who declined to publicise the ring-fenced geographic pilots he introduced to test the concepts. They, like all officials, prefer to tax and spend rather than publicise tax breaks. Interestingly Inland Revenue was more helpful … but ca va.

When I first started looking at lifelong learning I assumed that learning for leisure paid from inflation proofed pensions (e.g. residential art appreciation courses combined with tours of art galleries) would replace undergraduate courses as the main income stream for university Arts and Humanities departments. I was looking forward to my own next career being to organise follow through, in comfort, on that which, as an undergraduate historian, I lacked the maturity to understand.

Time is now running out, although I do still hope to put down my thoughts on how the digital industries have evolved over that past fifty years before I put my files in the skip.

I would not expect that form of lifelong learning to be chargeable against tax free Lifelong learning accounts but I do consider the latter to be one of the core points of leverage – provided they are secured against the fraud which destroyed the last UK attempt to go down this route.

Please let me have your views on what needs to happen?

I am looking for material and speakers to introduce a joint CPF-CSTF session on “Making a reality of lifelong learning in the digital age” at the Conservative Party Conference. I anticipate that the audience/participants will include councillors, school and college governors and local businessmen who are already organising, or trying to organise local skills partnerships, including, but not just, for digital skills.

Also please message me on Linked In or e-mail me if you would like to join either of the ZOOMs. A note of the contribution you would like to make would be most helpful. These events are for active and informed participants, not observers.

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