Opinion: Adult education still offers a second chance if you flunked school

What if school didn’t work for you first time, or you think it’s time to go back? Ruth Spellman, CEO of adult education supplier WEA, says the door is still open to have another shot at that dream career

The adult education sector is facing many challenges right now; declining student numbers coupled with funding pressures, the advance of automation and robotics, as well as the challenges of Brexit and an ageing population. Change is happening more quickly than many realise, and people are unsure what to do about it.

Many experts say that much of Britain’s education system is not working properly. Instead of the emerging generation rushing to gain skills the economy will demand, the number of students enrolling has been declining and the UK is lagging behind in adult literacy and numeracy.

The latest Universities UK report, Solving Future Skills Challenges, highlights the need for continual upgrading of skills, lifelong learning and study of higher education qualifications at all levels. It reveals that by 2020 more than one-third of desired core skill sets of most occupations will be comprised of skills that are not yet considered crucial to the job today. Educators are in a difficult position where they are having to prepare learners for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that have not yet been invented.

Returning to education as an adult can be daunting and difficult

This is why adult education has never been more important. It provides the opportunity for adults to successfully access learning opportunities that work for them and fit with their busy working lives, to then equip them with the relevant life, education and employment skills to support these critical transitions throughout their lives.

We recognise that for many people, returning to education as an adult can be daunting and difficult and so we work to remove barriers wherever possible. When so many people leave school without qualifications, it means they then lack the entry-level skills or essential qualifications to progress into education later in life. And there are even greater challenges for people for whom English is not their first language.

This is where adult education flourishes – second chance education. We have lots of students who come to us after not getting any qualifications or after a negative experience of school. However, it’s not just those who didn’t do well in school, retraining is a must for everybody. The most recent data shows that young people will need to be prepared for more than a dozen job changes in their working lifetime.

At the moment school leavers, even with all the options available, are not prepared for the future world of work. So where does this leave those who have been out of education for decades? A culture of adaptability and lifelong learning will enable us to share the benefits of automation, particularly with an ageing population where people will be working for longer.

Retraining is not an easy option for many people. However, the government’s National Retraining Scheme, once finalised, could ensure there are opportunities available for everyone to get the skills they need throughout their lives. It is too narrow in focus at the moment, looking at tech and construction only, but if this was widened to include all sectors it could see a push towards retraining for all.

We are calling for a “hop on, hop off” education system which is affordable and accessible for people at all ages and in which education becomes a positive setting throughout life rather than a brief period in younger life. This will ensure people are not left behind and ensure they are adaptable and employable throughout their working lives.

Without a proper strategy for adult learning we will not realise our full potential as a nation, socially or economically, especially in the uncertain landscape of post-Brexit Britain.

Image: Julie Walters and her teacher Michael Caine in Educating Rita