Throughout the country, there are millions of low-skilled and low-skilled adults. In fact, a quarter of working-age adults in England are not qualified to upper secondary level (A level or equivalent), which is above the OECD average and more than double the level seen in Germany. and in the United States.
Recently at the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), we published a landmark study on educational inequality, in which we argued that one of the fundamental flaws in our education system is the lack of second chances. adequate for adults.
The low skills of millions of adults not only hinder national productivity, but they also limit individual prospects in the labor market. By the age of 40, the average UK employee qualified at GCSE level or below earns half as much as someone with a degree.
Therefore, if we are serious about tackling inequality and boosting the productivity of the wider economy, it is essential to ensure that the education system provides all adults with the education and training opportunities they need. need to thrive.
Those who don’t do well in their GCSEs don’t tend to catch up
In last month’s GCSE results, almost a quarter of 16-year-olds failed to achieve at least a Grade 4 in GCSE English. In mathematics, more than one pupil in three does not reach this criterion.
These pupils will have to re-sit their English and maths exams, but many will not pass the next time: less than 30% of GCSE English exams and only 20% of GCSE maths exams have been passed this year.
More broadly, almost half of pupils who did not get at least five good GCSEs or the equivalent at 16 still did not get them at 19. Even looking a decade after their GCSEs, around 30% of people who failed GCSEs the first time had not achieved these qualifications by their mid-twenties.
This educational stagnation translates into a high proportion of young adults without basic skills, which can significantly limit their chances in life.
The decline of educational opportunities for adult learners
In addition to the lack of progress among young learners, over the past decade there has been a significant decline in the number of adults taking up qualifications that can fill existing skills gaps.
In Figure 1 we report the number of adults taking classroom qualifications (i.e. non-learning related qualifications) at level 3 or below. Between 2010-2011 and 2020-2021, the number of adults obtaining low-level qualifications fell from around 2.8 million in 2010 to around 1.5 million in 2020, a decrease of around 47%
Figure 1-Total number of adult learners entering classroom qualifications at Level 3 or below in England between 2010-11 and 2020-21
For adults with little schooling, these trends have made it more difficult to access upskilling opportunities through formal education, meaning that existing educational gaps between adults may not be closed and may even widen.
Funding restrictions hinder access to education after 16
Politics plays a key role in limiting educational opportunities. Over the past decade, the government has limited the amount of funds available for adult education. In Figure 2 we show the level of public spending on adult education and learning.
Figure 2-Total public expenditure on adult education and learning
In 2019-20, spending on adult education was almost two-thirds lower in real terms than in 2003-2004 and around 50% lower than in 2009-2010. The decline was mainly due to the removal of public funding from low-level classroom courses.
Although some of these courses have proven unprofitable for learners, their reduction has made it more difficult for adults with few existing qualifications to access retraining opportunities.
The political response to the problems of post-16 education
The problems of post-16 education that we have highlighted so far are not unknown. Indeed, the government has introduced a number of reforms in recent years to try to ameliorate these problems, but it is not certain that they go far enough.
The government has recently introduced significant additional funding for adult education, including the £2.5billion National Skills Fund. This money is being used to restore the right to free adult Level 3 lessons and also to fund new training programs, such as skills boot camps and the Multiply program.
In general, providing effective support and training to adults is a tall order. While new programs like Multiply are likely to help those who have left school without a good GCSE or equivalent qualifications, they are relatively untested and unlikely to lead to formal qualifications.
In addition, additional government spending on adult education needs to be put into context. In a report released earlier this year, we found that additional skills spending will only partially reverse previous cuts. Even with the additional funds, total public spending on adult education and learning will be 25% lower in 2024-25 than it was in 2010-11.
It is essential to provide effective support and training to all adults. Currently, those who do not do well in school are often left behind. A number of positive reforms have been made recently in adult education, but given the severe cuts in funding over the past decade, it is unclear whether this will be enough to give everyone the second chance he needs.
By Imran Tahir – a search economist at the Institute for Fiscal Studies and author of the chapter “Inequalities in Education” for the IFS Deaton Review
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