By Stephen Evans
Our first Lifelong Learning Week aims to celebrate the best in adult learning and harness the appetite for lifelong learning we’ve seen during lockdown.
It’s been a year that most of us didn’t expect. The coronavirus lockdown left us all spending more time at home than usual, struggling to balance working and home life, and worried about our collective health.
But it also showcased the best in us and the power of lifelong learning. This included a surge in people doing Joe Wicks’ online PE classes, often to shed the pounds we’d gained from the banana bread we had been learning to make, and learning how to use Zoom (though not always how to unmute ourselves).
This was perhaps the year that online learning went mainstream, with millions of us picking up new skills and ideas using everything from YouTube videos to more formally designed blended provision. It showed that learning isn’t just about classrooms and qualifications, as important as these are. And many adult learning groups played their part, helping local people or making masks or gowns for our over-stretched NHS workers.
It is this innate interest in lifelong learning that we seek to celebrate during our first Lifelong Learning Week, part of the Learning and Work Institute’s Festival of Learning.
Lifelong learning is perhaps more important than ever. The arguments are well-rehearsed. Longer working lives and global economic change mean we’ll all have to retrain and update our skills more often. This will be particularly crucial given the lasting change that the pandemic will cause to our economy – and to the skills that employers will need in the future. Skills are also vital to businesses competitiveness and the UK’s productivity is an increasingly knowledge-led economy. But learning is about more than our careers and work. It has a wide range of social and personal benefits, too, including community engagement, building friendships, and supporting health and wellbeing.
We see these benefits and the range of motivations for learning in our Festival of Learning award winners. Each year, it’s such a highlight to hear their stories and the diverse range of reasons for learning, ways of learning and benefits of learning.
Yet we’ve had a decade of decline, with the adult education budget in England cut by 40 per cent since 2010 and the number of adults taking part in some form of learning falling to record lows. Employer investment in learning and training has also fallen. As a result, we’re on track to fall further down the international league tables for skills by 2030 unless we act.
Inequalities in participation in learning are stark, too. You’re four times more likely to get training at work if you have a degree-level qualification than if you have no qualifications. Our survey shows your likelihood of taking part in learning varies significantly by socioeconomic group and region and country – widening access to learning needs to be part of the government’s plans for “levelling up” across the country.
We’re not going to go back to exactly how things were before lockdown. Coronavirus is still with us, and some of the changes we’ve seen will be permanent. That means we need to find new ways to inspire people to want to learn and new ways to deliver that learning.
That’s where Lifelong Learning Week comes in. We will be celebrating inspirational learners, tutors, employers and projects in our annual Festival of Learning awards. We will be releasing the latest findings of our adult participation survey, which will show who has – and who hasn’t – been taking part in learning during lockdown. And we will have a series of online lectures, classes, debates and events, giving everyone the chance to get involved. You can find out more about what we’ve got going on here.
This year has been a demonstration of the importance of lifelong learning. I hope that Lifelong Learning Week helps to celebrate the amazing work going on, make the case for more investment, and showcase new ways of learning and engaging adults.
Stephen Evans is chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute