Robert Halfon MP calls for a revolution in lifelong learning – new report by the Commons Education Select Committee

The influential Chair of one of the more higher profile parliamentary committees (especially given the CV19 pandemic and schools) seeks to reverse decades of decline

You can read Mr Halfon’s remarks to his local constituency media here, and can also read the full report by the House of Commons Education Select Committee here. Unfortunately and inevitably this important report got buried under the avalanche of news updates on Brexit and Covid19.

Four Pillars of Lifelong Education

Mr Halfon identifies:

  • A community learning centre in every town
  • Individual Learning accounts (ILAs)
  • Nurse part time Higher Education back to health
  • A skills tax credit to revitalise employer-led training

A month before the report from the Education Committee, I wrote a blogpost on colleges for adults. There are already examples of this, such as CityLit in London. But why do such centres have to be ‘towerblock-based’? CityLit in Central London between Holborn and Covent Garden tube stations lacks the open spaces.

How about the country house model?

This is the model that the University of Cambridge uses for its Continuing Education courses – renting out Madingley Hall. I struggled with studying at this venue because of the time it took to cross town to get there – there’s no public transport to the site, and it involves a mentally-exhausting ride across town if you happen like me to live on the other side! (I still recommend without reservation Dr Carina O’Reilly’s courses on politics – a former deputy leader of Cambridge City Council, she’s one of the few who has the practical experience of representing a constituency, the experience of managing a large budget as an executive councillor, and an in-depth knowledge and understanding of political theory that is hard to find in contemporary party politics).

For avoidance of doubt, CityLit and ICE Cambridge have very different target audiences and very different course profiles. You’d expect that given their different geographies and histories. One of the risks however is that Lifelong Learning Colleges in economically-deprived areas get dumped in tower blocks, while those in affluent areas have converted country houses with sumptuous (but otherwise underused) surroundings as their settings.

“What should be the core functions of such institutions? What additional facilities and activities can be built into them so that local communities can maximise the benefits?”

One of the big policy errors Labour made in this area at the end of its years in office in the late 2000s was cutting the budgets on courses they saw as subsidies for middle class hobbies, with the reasoning they were focusing spending on essential workplace skills for those with none. Former Health Secretary Frank Dobson MP was particularly aggrieved at that decision. They are two very different policy areas, and the money allocated may have been better spent on other wellbeing issues (such as mental health) that were stopping people from taking up such training opportunities.

“I find it hard to believe that this is being done by good and decent people such as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills. He is my friend and he is honourable, but he is not right; he is wrong on this occasion. I cannot believe that Ministers have seriously considered the impact of this change on individual institutions.”

Frank Dobson MP. Commons Hansard 08 Jan 2008.

Again, much depends on the demographics of each town that such lifelong learning colleges are established in. Which means that Central Government is not the right level of government to be doing the delivery. Far better to leave it to an appropriate tier of local government who will know their communities far better than anyone in Whitehall. And I write as one of those former civil servants in Whitehall!

There are a host of complementary policy areas that would benefit from the establishment of such institutions. Local (to me) Ph.D student and former Conservative MP candidate Dolly Theis has written a number of articles on the Government’s obesity strategy (see one example here). One of the things policy-makers in her field might look at is how lifelong learning institutions could help reduce obesity rates.

It does not automatically mean that every college should have an identikit sports hall and gym, which is a classic ‘tick box’ approach. It might involve selecting a location which has a frequent, affordable and reliable public transport link built in, is accessible to the countryside, has some outdoor pitches (grass and all weather), and has a local nature reserve and community orchard. In that example, the freedom to go on walks in the countryside may achieve far more for some groups than building a gym and expecting people to use it – especially in these socially-distanced times.

You could say that at its most ostentatious the grounds might look/feel something like some of the most exclusive private schools (plucking Haileybury out of the air here). But then you run the risk of building a university-style campus that is separate to, rather than an integral part of a local community, and have an architectural style that intimidates rather than inspires & welcomes its prospective learners.

“Does the Department for Education have the policy capacity to develop the recommendations from Mr Halfon’s Committee into something more tangible?”

That depends on how successful ministers are at handling the Corona Virus Pandemic, alongside ministerial priorities. If it’s a high enough priority, they will allocate that capacity. It’s up to MPs to persuade ministers of the case.

Again, it does not need ministers and civil servants to deliver it. One tier ideally placed to pilot such schemes under the current set up are the metro mayors and combined authorities. If policy evaluations have been done for the University Technical Colleges, those need to be dusted down and fed into the policy development of new lifelong learning colleges. They are also the figureheads who can canvass businesses and local philanthropists for contributions to go beyond the essentials and provide for state-of-the-art facilities such as in-house performance theatres, exhibition spaces, communal facilities and sports facilities.

Make them places where people want to be

I struggle to think of any time or place wherever I have lived that was a place in town where I simply wanted to be around. I guess that reflects my insecure nature, but I recall in my mid-teens of pondering what that might look like, be like, and feel like, at a time when my own secondary school was literally crumbling into concrete dust. (It had to be demolished completely over the next few years). I pictured what the people would be like, what the buildings and facilities would be like, and even what the climate and environment would be like. As it turned out I always ended up arriving at the start of building work and leaving just before it was completed. Which was a little unfair!

How do you build a place where people want to be? Ask your target and prospective audiences – similar to the competition The Guardian ran for children in 2001 and 2011. Which reminds me – they are due to run it again in 2021 – which is this year. Aren’t they?

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