Time to grow up? What England can learn from international approaches to adult education

18 April 2019

By Lukasz Krebel

7 minute read

Last month the ONS reported that 1.5 million jobs in England are at high risk from automation. Compounding this, England suffers from skills mismatches, information failures and insufficient funding for adult learning, as previous CPP research has highlighted, contributing to a low-pay trap for many adults. The urgency of these issues has led to three commissions on lifelong learning being established in the past year: the Independent Commission on Lifelong Learning In England by Liberal Democrats, the Lifelong Learning Commission by the Labour Party, and the Centenary Commission on Adult Education, launched by the Workers’ Educational Association. Meanwhile, the Review of Post-18 Education and Funding announced by the Prime Minister in February 2018 is due to report in the coming months.

England, of course, is not the only country grappling with these challenges. To analyse what lessons from overseas may be applicable domestically, CPP surveyed the adult skills systems of four countries with strengths in vocational education and lifelong learning - Germany, Switzerland, Sweden and Singapore. This process identified four key issues all countries must get right to achieve an effective system of lifelong learning: the role of industry, decentralisation of decision-making, cultural attitudes and, finally, implementation.

Buy-in from business is key

An essential feature of any skills system is that it produces skills that employers need and recognise. Germany offers an example of a system where industry bodies play a leading role in shaping qualifications and ensuring the framework they oversee addresses real-world business needs. In Switzerland, companies play a key role in job-related continued education and are themselves a major provider of training courses, while trade associations work closely with other social partners, federal government and cantons in ensuring that vocational and professional education system provides adequate number of training options in the most promising sectors. This is an area England has failed to get right in the past. Despite employer engagement and investment in skills being one of the objectives set by the 2006 Leitch Review of Skills, 7 years later the Review of Adult Vocational Qualifications in England found the system was still failing to address the needs of employers. Further attempts have been taken since – employers were heavily involved in the design of the upcoming T-levels and were recently given a key role in shaping new apprenticeship standards. However, recent history suggests that one-off consultations on specific reforms or broad aims of greater employer involvement are not sufficient. Only continuing government-industry engagement embedded as a business-as-usual way of continually improving the skills provision can ensure long-term success.

Central government: less can be more

International examples suggest that successful skills systems are characterised by a collaborative approach between central government, local areas and stakeholders, as opposed to the top-down model prevalent in England over the last three decades where ‘the centre nearly always knows best’. In Germany, the role of the federal government in regulating adult skills policy is limited. Länder define their own policy priorities that best address their differing regional skill needs and play a role in shaping national policy through joint collaborative bodies with the central government. In contrast, despite attempts to decentralise the English system, Westminster remains the dominant actor in skills policymaking, reflecting the trust issues that hamper devolving power from the centre to regional and social partners. Whilst not a federal state, it does not preclude England from devolving skills policy, and Mayoral Combined Authorities have been granted control over some of the adult education budget (AEB) from 2019/20. As the (then) Skills Funding Agency explained, devolving AEB would ‘enable local areas and colleges and other training organisations to reshape their local adult education provision’ and allow them to focus on their specific economic priorities and productivity challenges. However, given the relatively small size of the AEB, it is just a first step. Therefore, we need to maintain devolution momentum.

Culture matters

The importance of cultural attitudes to vocational education and lifelong learning is clear. Switzerland is renowned for its VET (vocational education and training) system, and while its primary focus is on developing the skills of young workers, the high regard for technical education and employer dedication to training ensure it is a viable path for adult learners too. Vocational education is also highly valued in Germany, and its well-established apprenticeship and vocational training system was recognised as a contributing factor to Germany being the highest-ranked European country in the Economist’s Automation Readiness Index. In Sweden, high levels of participation in lifelong learning owe much to the popularity of its longstanding non-formal adult education system – Folkbildning. Singapore’s SkillsFuture movement provides an example of a coordinated effort by the government and key stakeholders to overcome popular misconceptions and foster a culture that ‘supports and celebrates lifelong learning’. In the UK, there is a perception that technical routes are for those who failed academically, although there is some evidence that attitudes are changing. Effecting cultural change is difficult. Back in 2006 the Leitch Review of Skills spoke about ‘embedding a culture of learning’ and raising adults’ aspirations and awareness yet 15 years later it remains a challenge. Shifting culture won’t happen overnight, or even within a single parliamentary term – it needs to be embraced as a long-term objective.

Implementation, implementation, implementation

An approach that has been attracting attention across a number of countries lately is individual learning accounts, which were also the main area of focus of the recent report by the Independent Commission on Lifelong Learning. The UK trialled them in the early 2000s but the hastily implemented and poorly designed system was suspended after just over a year due to widespread fraud and complaints about poor quality training and misleading advertising. Yet a scheme implemented recently in Singapore, which provides each adult over 25 with an initial S$500 credit to spend on approved courses, has so far met with positive reviews. Since the programme started in 2016, training participation rate of Singapore’s resident labour force has risen from 35% (2015) to 47% (2017). A lesson for England is that strong quality assurance in collaboration with industry is essential in ensuring that individually-allocated funding is well spent.


Recent policy developments in England give reason to be cautiously optimistic, but a focus on implementation is key. International examples suggest that ongoing and long-term engagement with businesses in delivering adult education, greater involvement of regional authorities in shaping skills policy and striving to put technical education on par with academic qualifications in public perception are all relevant avenues for further exploration.