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A Shake Up in the Adult Education System?

A Shake Up in the Adult Education System?

The Conservatives have a long track record of under-funding training and further education, so why should anyone believe the Prime Minister now? Professor Richard Pettigrew is not holding his breath that anything meaningful will be delivered.

Yesterday, Boris Johnson made a speech in which he vowed to make "radical" changes to the adult education system in England to help boost the post-Covid economy. The prime minister said the pandemic had "massively accelerated" changes to the world of work, and made training gaps "painfully apparent". He said funding changes could help end the "bogus distinction" between academic and vocational learning.

I should declare an interest here: my first postgrad job was at one of the now defunct industrial training boards; I then went into FE teaching; and in the recent past have had much to do with working on degree apprenticeships. 

So to what the prime minister says. It is a great idea and one that needs to be developed and engaged. However the Tory government have extensive form in reducing the national spend on industrial training. In the past, we used to have industrial training boards, which delivered, vocational, technical, technological – and industrial – training to millions of people who had either not had, or else chosen not to, go into further or higher education.

Very highly regarded, these boards oversaw the companies and organisations that delivered the training, provided specialist training courses themselves, and made sure that everything was recorded and that all employees gained the full recognition for everything that they achieved. The people who worked in and for the training boards were of the highest quality, capability and commitment, and helped to ensure that everyone received whatever training was required for them to fulfil themselves in their jobs, progress in their careers, and develop as far as they chose.

And what happened? Along came the tories in 1979 and abolished the training boards; they first tried to privatise them, and then when this failed they were closed down. Since then the hole has been filled by a variety of vocational providers, nearly all of which are fully commercial. Some of the providers are excellent of course; but many others are so poor as to be unworthy of the name. 

The Further Education sector has fared little better. Since the mid 1980s also, there has been a steady outflow (not inflow) of money from the FE sector. Many FE colleges are on their knees financially. Many others run programmes on the basis that there is short term funding available only, and they use this funding to keep alive in the hope that they will find the local numbers and reputation that will enable them to do good work. Others still merge into ‘super colleges’ which are run across a wide location by a single administration, again as a cost saving measure. 

So making these promises in the times that we are in at present is therefore little short of hot air. When is it all going to start? Next week? After Christmas? Not until the spring.

The FE and industrial and vocational training sector needs far more than £2 billion just to get it back to its 1980s state. It then needs to attract top quality expert and committed staff who will deliver what the prime minister appears to promise. So I for one am not holding my breath.

Finally we have the speech maker himself. On the basis of Johnson's recent track record, this is a flipflop announcement made on the hoof, on the basis of a short term pandering to the audience that he just happened to find himself facing.

If he truly delivers on this I will be staggered. It is much more likely that it is yet another Roman candle: flickers to life today, explodes into full flame on Thursday or Friday, and will then die a natural death over the weekend.

  • Richard Pettinger, Professor of Management Education, University College London School of Management

PHOTO: Campus life

Work areas: Education.