While September signifies the start of the school year for children across England, the Festival of Learning, the biggest celebration of lifelong learning in England has a different focus this month. September marks Have a Go Month, which encourages adults to consider upskilling, or even to head back into education. Although re-entering education may appear daunting for some adults, it can open up a world of opportunities and a range of job prospects that can transform a person’s life.
Providers across the country offer courses at varying levels for those looking to change their career, or sit programmes that enable workers to stay ahead of the curve on developments and new innovations within their sector. Lifelong learning also provides advantages for employers – an investment in new skills training can help a business close the skills gap and improve productivity with a relatively low-level cost.
In a recent speech about the country’s skills revolution, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “We know that having the right skills and training is the route to better, well paid jobs.” For those who have left education, this might mean offering them opportunities to undertake further training to ensure their skillset is attractive to employers.
However, there are still significant barriers to entry for adult learners that need to be addressed if benefits to individuals and the whole economy are to be fully realised.
Whether it’s the cost of a training course or even the additional expense of travel and resources, lifelong learning can place a challenging financial strain on people.
Currently, adults are able to access maintenance loans and funding to cover their tuition fees if they are studying a degree for the first time, but in order to improve access to other programmes, additional funding needs to be allocated to all adult skills courses. This needs to work in the same way that young people access funding, where those from more disadvantaged backgrounds or those with special educational needs and disabilities, are also offered the support both financially and academically that they require.
While some courses are made to fit around busy schedules, many are aimed at the schedules of young adults, without children and other commitments. A survey conducted in 2019 found that one of the most common barriers that adults face in accessing learning is the existing work, and other time pressures. Amongst the top answers, childcare arrangements or other caring responsibilities are also listed, showcasing that despite an appetite to want to learn and upskill, real-life time pressures are restricting access.
Being time poor can also result in a person overworking and ‘burning out’ and consequently may lead to a higher chance of failing or dropping out of their programme all together. While combatting this barrier will be difficult without significant funding into childcare, for example, it is also crucial that employers and businesses understand the added pressure applied to adults when undertaking learning. Additionally, institutions and those running training programmes need to ensure that they are flexible and understanding of the conflicting interests that adult learners have. This includes flexibility on deadlines and attendance, to ensure that adult learners are getting the most out of their course instead of feeling unnecessary pressure and stress.
Awareness of the options available to workers and their employers also acts as a large barrier to entry. Improving awareness of the benefits of lifelong learning will help make employers aware of the advantages they stand to gain from investment in training. This should subsequently result in their support for the employers who engage in upskilling.
The stigma around lifelong learning also needs to be removed. I It should not be seen as an admittance of lack of skill but instead an opportunity to further a person’s prospects. Work needs to be done to transform the perception of upskilling, especially amongst those from disadvantaged backgrounds, where skills gaps are widening. The government should be encouraging businesses, especially those based in areas that are key to the levelling up agenda to set a precedent in supporting their employees who are entering these kinds of programmes.
Despite the current barriers facing the concept of lifelong learning, many still stand to gain significant benefits, including helping to bolster their employability levels during times of a fluid labour market. Moving forward, if the Government is to centre its levelling up agenda around lifelong learning, then these barriers need to be addressed to guarantee that those who could benefit the most from these opportunities are being offered full access.
During this month, employers and employees should take the time to research the plethora of opportunities available to them and consider taking active steps towards recognising how imperative lifelong learning will become for businesses and the UK economy following both Brexit and the pandemic.