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Life-long learning curve

MikeWatson.jpgMike Watson on ensuring the UK’s workforce – and employers - are fit for the future

A Labour led debate in the House of Lords tonight will consider the need for a comprehensive strategy for life-long learning and adult re-skilling, in response to the various challenges of technology and productivity; and the changing nature of work. Without a coherent strategy to prepare for a strong and expanding economy for at least the next decade, no government is going to deliver sustained prosperity.

Over the past seven years, Conservative governments have made a comprehensive mess of running the UK economy. Until last week’s Budget, there had been no deviation from the belief that the answer to the 2008 crash was austerity measures designed primarily to make those who contributed next to nothing in the collapse pay the gigantic bill that resulted. Meanwhile those actually involved in the financial recklessness have escaped virtually scot free.

Chancellor Philip Hammond has, like his predecessor, consistently failed to meet debt reduction targets. Now however, he has announced his intentions to react to downward projections for productivity growth in the economy by adopting Keynesian principles – increasing spending and borrowing substantially over the next two years. Better late than never.

The government has also published its ‘Industrial Strategy’ White Paper, which mainly consists of reannounced policies and old spending commitments – revealing once again to be short on details and new ideas. Nothing that will help give businesses the certainty or incentives they need to invest in the face of the confusion surrounding the Brexit negotiations.

According to a recent OECD report, the UK is full of highly-educated workers with skills that do not match the jobs available. Employers are putting too little effort into the right training and need to work more closely with the education system to ensure school pupils, and college and university students achieve what is required. Apprenticeships could be the key to improving our country’s prospects – but a rethink is needed of the levy. Given widespread concern that quantity could undermine quality, Ministers should abandon their ambitious target of reaching three million apprenticeships by 2020.

The main priority for the UK should be lifelong learning, with individuals given the opportunity and incentive to upskill and re-train, learning flexible skills that are not attached to a particular employer. Rising automation and artificial intelligence will make many jobs redundant but will also create new roles requiring some form of formal higher qualification, not necessarily full degrees.

Further Education colleges are key, as they already provide academic, technical and professional education for young people, adults and employers. Yet public investment in FE has been hit harder than any other part of the education system in the last decade. Properly resourced, they could build on their reputation as engines of social mobility, helping businesses improve productivity and driving growth, while being rooted in and committed to communities.

At both local and regional levels there is a need to provide careers information, advice and guidance, making greater use of labour market intelligence and mid-life reviews. More employers need to offer opportunities to adults, particularly those who are older and keen to remain active in employment. This requires long-term investment as well as a culture change at all age levels, perhaps by developing learning accounts to test approaches that could encourage more adults to invest in training.

Labour is committed to investing in lifelong learning, through the creation of a National Education Service for England. Like the NHS, this will be a cradle-to-grave provision, free at the point of use and built on the principle that ‘every child and adult matters’.

Lord Mike Watson of Invergowrie is Shadow Education Minister in the House of Lords

Published 27th November 2017

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