By David Hagendyk – Director for Wales Learning and Work
Envious eyes have been cast towards New Zealand over the last twelve months. With extensive and lengthy lockdowns across the UK and one of the highest death tolls per population anywhere in the world, the pandemic has had a devastating and potentially lasting impact on our economy and the fabric of our societies. Images from New Zealand of social gatherings and of life returning quickly to relative normality serve to highlight what might have been had we taken a different course here in the UK. Here in Wales, rugby internationals were postponed, our football teams play to empty stadiums, and our great cultural festivals have been cancelled once again. At the time of writing more than 5000 fellow citizens in Wales have died from Covid-19.

The pandemic has exposed and deepened existing inequalities here in Wales. Those areas with the highest rates of unemployment going into the pandemic have experienced the largest rises in people being out of work over the past twelve months. Many people in low and precarious employment haven’t had the flexibility to work safely from home, forcing them into a choice between greater exposure to the virus or loss of income they could not afford. It has exposed the need for wider reform of our social security system, in particular the safety net for those on low incomes, our levels of sick pay, and help for the self-employed. The remarkable success of the vaccine programme in every nation of the UK must not be allowed to push to the side the debate about the kind of society and economy we want to build for the future.

Post-16 education has been front and centre of efforts to mitigate the impact of the pandemic. With elections to the Welsh Parliament in May it looks likely that lifelong learning, training, and skills will be central to our long-term recovery too. However, before we can be clear about where we want to go in the longer term, we first need to learn the lessons from the last twelve months. Early in the pandemic we held a roundtable looking at the emerging lessons and we have continued to build a more complete picture. Set out below are what we think are some of the key lessons for policy makers and for the adult learning sector to consider as they look to the future.

Adult learners have been one of the groups hardest hit by the pandemic. Providers have told us about the challenge of disruption to delivery from various lockdowns and the impact the extended closure of community venues (such as community centres and libraries) has had on continuity of learning. Learners have told us about the challenge of adapting to online delivery and the loss of the social aspect of learning. As one learner told a provider, he missed putting the paint brush on to the canvass, but he missed more the cup of tea and a chat with his tutor and classmates.

Learners within Adult Community Learning are often individuals facing the most disadvantage: they often have the fewest skills, are the furthest from the labour market, they work in precarious employment, and have the poorest access to digital infrastructure. While we are good in Wales at selling the success of our adult learners, not least through our Inspire! Learner Awards, we have more to do to tell the story of the challenges and barriers learners face in adapting to the pandemic. One clear lesson from the pandemic is that the stories of adult learners haven’t been told enough and as a sector we need to do more to amplify their experiences and shout about their needs.

Organisations representing colleges in the different parts of the UK are often forced to remind policymakers and government ministers to remember that education is more than just schools. The phrase ‘And Colleges…’ is now a well-worn mantra on social media and in response to different policy announcements. In Wales we need to develop our own version for adult learning. The starting point must be to tell the stories of learners and the challenges they have faced during the pandemic and to remind governments that adult learners matter too.

Across post-16 education there has been a significant shift to blended and online models of delivery as a result of the pandemic. The early experience quickly highlighted the difficulties for families and
learners without access to the physical digital infrastructure (such as laptops or broadband access) and also without the skills and confidence to engage with online learning. One provider told is of a learner that didn’t want to learn online because they didn’t want their classmates to see inside their home and the poverty they faced. The pandemic has got into the cracks of existing inequalities and widened them even further. We should all be concerned at the long-term impact of the crisis on learners of all ages.

There is no doubt that blended learning will now be a substantial part of how adult learning will be delivered. This will need careful planning and delivery and new investment to ensure that those facing
digital exclusion are not left further behind. The pandemic may mark the point at which digital and blended learning was brought more into the mainstream for a greater proportion of learners, but it must not also mark a scaling back of investment in face-to-face, community-based learning.

It is crucial that this investment focuses on providing the digital infrastructure for learners, as well as equipping them with the skills and confidence to develop skills for work and for life. However, the investment in new ways of delivery need as well to extend to the skills of the adult learning workforce. A key lesson from the crisis has been that some adult educators did not themselves have the skills and the pedagogical knowledge to deliver online in the early months of the pandemic. While many educators learned on the job to develop their skills, there is no doubt that there needs to be a long-term commitment and investment in the professional development of the adult education workforce.

Finally there is room for optimism as the pandemic has helped once again to demonstrate the value of adult education to policy makers. A new Digital Strategy is being developed by the Welsh Government and officials and ministers can see the value of adult education to the digital mission and digital inclusion strands within this. Similarly, adult education and a commitment to lifelong learning clearly has a role to play in meeting the rising demand from learners for learning that supports their well-being.

Currently the focus and support for adult learning in the community is too narrow. With a relatively modest investment it could again play a much fuller role in providing learning to enhance civic engagement, support community integration, promote well-being, and widen access to thousands more people.

The Welsh Government has a commitment to developing a right to lifelong learning but progress towards this has been stalled by the need to focus on the pandemic. The pandemic has again demonstrated the value and the role lifelong learning could have in building back better and creating a more equal and prosperous Wales. While the world looks enviously at New Zealand and your response to the pandemic, here in Wales we should aspire to have the eyes of the adult education world looking to us for what is possible with investment, ambition, and courage.