Future of Adult Education

A whole system approach for the future of adult education is needed

VocTech is about so much more than online learning

By Rebecca Garrod-Waters, CEO of Ufi VocTech Trust

As we wait for the release of the FE White Paper, and building on our recent celebration of VocTech, I have been reflecting on the collective sector voice and the consistency of the messages we are seeing.

At the start of November, Ufi hosted a Week of VocTech - an online celebration of the very best in vocational technology. This was a chance to celebrate the very best of vocational technology and to think about how we can best deploy it in the future.

It has been an important time for the release of insights and opinions about adult education, vocational skills, and lifelong learning, as we all consider the impact the last 12 months has had.

Everybody is in agreement that we need a better vocational skills system that recognises the importance of both formal education and lifelong learning – and we all know that skills are the foundation of an economic recovery. But how are we going to achieve this? How can we develop a system that supports the ‘levelling up’ that we need, both from a regional perspective and from the perspective of the communities, sectors and areas that are being left behind in otherwise growth areas or industries?

It's about supporting better learner outcomes

We need to be more determinedly focussed on better use of technology to support learning, and it’s disappointing to hear people revert to the tired tropes about ‘online learning’ or to use it as a shorthand for digital. This misunderstands the potential and purpose of digital technology in a modern skills and learning context – digital tech is about supporting learners, teachers, trainers and organisations and creating the environment for better learner outcomes.

Technology to support vocational skills, VocTech, is about so much more than online learning – and can achieve so much more. It will be really important for the FE white paper to recognise the importance of technology as both a remote tool and something that supports learning in the classroom.

The College of the Future is an important look at the way we view education and what is needed to support skills development. This needs to be built on an explicit commitment to the proper use of technology. A sustainable and effective adult education system needs to recognise that technology is part of the critical infrastructure for the development of colleges, technology supports the learning both in and out of the classroom, and technology underpins the interaction between teacher and learner.

We have been supporting better vocational skills through the development and deployment of technology since we became a grant funding body, recognising the critical role that tech has to play in the education system – at every point and for every stage and type of learning.

The current furlough scheme ends in March 2021, at which point many of us won’t have seen our colleagues for over a year and are extremely unlikely to have engaged in any face to face training. The recent report from the CBI estimates that 80% of the 2030 workforce are currently either in work or looking for work, which shows very clearly the importance of lifelong learning and the need for a deliberate focus on adult education. The recommendations from the CBI report are very positive in terms of the calls for greater individual ownership of learning and support for retraining and reskilling as well as greater investment from all the players in the vocational landscape.

The current situation has significantly accelerated the pace of change in terms of the challenges already recognised around automation and the fourth industrial revolution. The RSA describes the fast pace of change as five years of digital transformation in five months – with the acceleration of automation accompanied by the loss of ‘automation proof’ jobs as a result of the pandemic. Their report ‘Who’s At Risk? Automation in the time of Covid’ calls for greater focus on retraining and specifically personal learning accounts, which also recognises the importance of individual ownership of learning and the importance of flexibility of access and recognition of skills.

Increasing flexibility of learning, access to learning and more opportunity for individual ownership and engagement can only be achieved through better use of tech – and a recognition of the long term approach needed for the development and deployment of both the technology and the different skills required to utilise it.

City and Guilds, in their Act Now report, highlight the critical challenges faced by different parts of the UK – and rightly call for more flexible ways to deal with the increasing disparities seen. The report calls for greater flexibility over where people learn, something we are strongly support, and an area where a strategic and coherent approach to VocTech and technology more broadly will have a huge positive impact.

We too believe in the need for an approach to learning that recognises the world we live in the challenges ahead – we’ve been calling for a revolution in education for a while, and it feels like we could achieve it, but only if the importance of tech to underpin different ways of things is recognised. This is not about online learning, but an ongoing integrated part of the future of adult vocational skills. Where planning recognises the importance of a tech enabled and tech integrated system – and that means everything: infrastructure, assessment, support, training the trainers and a long term commitment for a valued future for adult vocational skills.

The Learning and Work Institute report ‘Learning Through Lockdown’, published on the same day as Act Now, gives a very clear insight into the challenges we face in terms of disparity of opportunity and access and reconfirms what we already know – that the more training and skills you have the more likely you are to have access to the opportunity to train further. Younger adults, full time workers, those in higher socio-economic grades and with more years of initial education were all more likely to be learning – and the report also found that those who had been furloughed were less likely to undertake learning than those who were still working full time.

Understanding these dynamics, and the reasons why people do (and don’t) engage with learning is critical to planning a better adult education system for all. Most importantly, interpreting these dynamics and utilising technology to address some of the barriers that individuals (and organisations) face, will ensure a better and fairer system to support adult education.

Adult vocational skills are the foundation of our economy

Technology is the critical part of the answer to the questions that arise around addressing disparity and future proofing lifelong skills provision. We must work together to ensure a future that is fair, economically sound and meets the needs of our nation.

Adult vocational skills are the foundation of our economy and tech is the tool to underpin flexibility and greater parity of opportunity. If we do not develop a system that provides flexibility and parity of opportunity we have failed.

Adult vocational skills are essential.

VocTech is essential to ensure that we have system that can support them.


Explore the publications referenced in this article.

More Blog Posts, News, and Perspectives