The UK needs a more integrated education system if we are to promote lifelong learning

Vice-Chancellor, Prof. David Phoenix, on creating a more integrated education system in the UK:

I was very pleased to be asked to join the Independent Panel of the Labour Party’s Commission for Lifelong Learning at the start of this year. Without doubt, this is an area of our education system that demands far greater attention. The number of mature learners has collapsed in the last decade and the opportunities for further learning after the age of 25 have shrunk – just as the onset of automation and the fourth industrial revolution mean that individuals will need more opportunities to retrain than ever before.

Six months on Co-Chairs Estelle Morris and Dave Ward have brought together an interim report based on a diverse range of contributions from members of the Independent Panel and submissions from others stakeholders. The report sets out the direction for developing robust recommendations if we believe in the need for a more cohesive system of lifelong learning and provides further opportunity for interested parties to submit their thoughts.

The report rightly highlights many of the systemic problems that exist when it comes to lifelong learning, and the fact lifelong learning is often seen as a deficit model.  In 1997, when referring to our educational system Baroness Kennedy said: ‘If at first you don’t succeed … you don’t succeed’.Indeed, in 2017, 39.4 per cent of 19-year-olds had not achieved a Level 3 (A-Level/BTech) qualification. A further 28.6 per cent did not even achieve a GCSE in English and maths. In a country focused on the need to successfully obtain a given qualification at a given age, related gateways to lifelong learning have to provide opportunities for those who have not achieved to be able to achieve later in life.

However, if we are to develop the skills we need as a knowledge based economy,  helping individuals to develop their potential and reskill, we need to change this narrative to one that does not focus on lifelong learning as a deficit model but one that recognises the need for the majority to be able to access leaning throughout their career.

A key part of the problem is that so much of post-18 education is fragmented and disjointed, with institutions facing conflicting priorities and driven into competition with each other for funding. If we are to unlock the reservoir of talent that exists in this country and face the challenges of insecure work, automation and the fourth industrial revolution, we need a far more integrated education system. By removing the incentives for schools to compete against each other and providing further and higher education with the means to collaborate, we can create much clearer pathways, without the age-based hurdles, from school through to training and university.

In its next stage of its work, the Lifelong Learning Commission will be establishing four workstreams to develop policy and funding recommendations to take forward. The ‘providers workstream’ will look at the roles played by the range of different education institutions and how they can work together to develop a more integrated system that provides clear pathways from foundation level to doctoral level education – meeting the differing needs of learners as well as those of local communities. A clear area of focus will need to be progression routes from level 3-5 where employers say there is greatest unmet skills demand and where the fourth industrial revolution will have greatest impact.

I look forward to engaging with this workstream and there are lessons we might learn from the work we are currently undertaking at LSBU to create a family of educational providers.

The LSBU Family utilises a group structure, with each specialist institution sharing a common educational framework and governance arrangements (as well as administrative and back-office functions) while providing high quality education in their distinct fields.

In addition to the University and a Multi-Academy Trust, containing a UTC and an Academy of Engineering, since February 2019 the LSBU Family has also contained Lambeth College – a vocationally focused Further Education College.

Aligning a group of institutions in this way creates a new approach to educational provision by offering learners access to high quality education across a range of ages and through multiple qualification pathways and utilises short courses through to doctoral programmes to meet individual and employer needs. As there is no competition for funding between institutions, this allows the focus to be centred on the learner, providing a genuine choice in learning styles by supporting transfer between technical, vocational and academic pathways and it enables a central focus for support and guidance. This enables learners to build a portfolio of skills, experience and qualifications relevant to their current needs and aspirations and ensures a focus is on student outcome and success.

For example, our Institute of Professional and Technical Education supports employers in upskilling their staff, whether that be through CPD courses or degree apprenticeships from Levels 2 to 7. It acts as a single gateway for employers and apprentices spanning university and college delivery and is able to provide a key point of oversight and guidance. This has already seen the apprenticeship offer grow to include over 1000 apprentices

We are continuing to develop the Family – aligning curriculums and overcoming regulatory and cultural rifts between the different educational sectors. However, we are already beginning to see some successes with significant increases in those progressing from Level 3 to 4 for example. It was pleasing to hear from a former student of our UTC who is now doing a degree apprenticeship with the University and a local construction employer about the benefits they received from the employer links and guidance that was available via this larger more sustainable structure.

Ours is just one model but if we are unable to provide a more integrated and proactive approach to lifelong learning and reskilling then we will be poorer as a country – not only in terms of reduced productivity but through the lost potential due to over half the population being unable to obtain the education they need when they most need it. I look forward to working with colleagues in developing recommendations which I hope will be of benefit to individuals, society and the economy - ensuring that a person’s future life chances are not determined by their performance on one particular day in an exam hall when they are at school but are supported throughout their career.