By Esther Chesterman, CEO, National Extension College
The Lifetime Skills Guarantee
The Prime Minister’s ‘ lifetime skills guarantee’ was a central announcement in the Queen;s Speech and will be incorporated into the new Skills and Post-16 Education Bill to be introduced from 18th May.
This is welcome news; the participation of adults in learning has dropped to its lowest levels in 23 years and the reasons identified by the 2019 and 2020 Adult Skills and Lifelong Learning Reports (from the Learning and Work Institute) are correct. They include the high costs of tuition fees and the removal of maintenance grants and bursaries (e,g for childcare and nursing training). Most adult students have their own family commitments, often having to prioritise family educational needs over their own. Typically they are financially stretched and very afraid of getting into debt. But the lifetime skills guarantee will only succeed if, along with financial support, it also addresses the other barriers that adults experience including access to assessment and the lack of flexibility in the current system.
Retraining in the Wake of Covid-19
As one of the most experienced providers of distance learning in the UK ,the National Extension College (NEC) has a unique perspective on a particular group of adult learners who are often ignored by policy makers. Since March 2020 when lockdown measures were introduced we have seen a surge in enrolments, mostly for GCSEs and A levels. Many of these students have lost their jobs due to the pandemic and are retraining for careers in areas such as teaching, nursing and midwifery – professions where there is a constant demand for people to fill roles – and need GCSEs or A levels as entry to higher education courses. These are invariably from people who want the flexibility to learn in their own time, at their own pace and at a place of their choosing*. Many have opted for distance learning because this is the only way they can study. Some are using this time to reflect on how they want to shape their lives in the future and lockdown have given the time and opportunity to plan a change of career.
The motivation and commitment to preparing for career change and lifelong learning amongst adults is strong, but the pathways have been eroded, and changes in policy and funding have put up additional barriers for adult learners.
Here is an example of the costs to learners of taking an online course with the National Extension College. (Note that NEC is a charity and makes no profits). Course fees are £750 for an A level course and £495 for a GCSE course. This includes all the course materials and expert one-to-one tuition. Students also have to be prepared to pay for exam entry as a private candidate and exam fees can be very expensive, often higher than the course itself. Exam centres (such as schools and colleges) willing to accept private candidates are scarce and each one sets their own fees because it is an open market. The most expensive exam costs are for A level sciences if the student needs to get the practical endorsement which is required for entry to science and medical degrees. For example, the cost of entering for A level Physics with the written papers and the practicals will typically be between £1000-£1500. Add to that the travel and overnight accommodation costs the student will have to pay. A level Chemistry incurs similar additional costs. GCSE and A level subjects that are only assessed through written papers cost between £300-£500 typically. For example, if a student has left school without qualifications and needs three GCSEs and two A levels to be accepted on a nursing degree the exam costs alone will be in the region of £4000. There are other costs as well for special access arrangements, the marking of assessed coursework and the travel and accommodation costs already mentioned.
A Need for Reform
Therefore, it is important that any new policies incorporate the needs of adult learners who are not studying full-time courses offered during the day. For instance, the current examination systems for GCSEs and A levels make it very difficult and costly for adults who are not studying through centres such as schools and colleges to sit exams in a registered centre or have their work assessed by centres.
We have ample proof that the motivation is there but the financial costs of securing the entry level qualifications is a barrier. The best way to kickstart participation would be through introducing individual learning accounts, funded through the national skills fund. Individual learning accounts would put the funding into the hands of learners, giving them choice and agency over their skills development.