Adults need learning, too

The pandemic has interfered with learning, but not just for schoolchildren...
23 February 2021

Interview with 

Mary Mahoney, University of Wolverhampton; Robert Halfon, Education Select Committee


Fourier series equations written on a blackboard.


The pandemic has interefered with learning, but not just for schoolchildren. Learning is a big part of life for adults as well, and many people who have lost their jobs may need to retrain new skills. Mary Mahoney is head of lifelong learning at the University of Wolverhampton, and works closely with local government and institutions to promote learning in one of the most deprived areas in the UK. She told Phil Sansom what she's up against...

Mary - I think it's a really complex problem. And I think the pandemic has just simply exacerbated a problem which was there already, and one of the things we've got hung up on is qualifications. So if, as an individual, you failed at school, and your experience of school wasn't a great one, then you are less likely to want to engage in learning of any form as you go through the lifespan; you will have diminished confidence in your own ability to learn; and then you won't necessarily pass onto your own children a joy or confidence around the learning experience. So it's a multifaceted problem, and it stems from the fact that we're concentrating more on education and less on learning. It's very hard therefore to engage adults, but adults are the linchpin at the moment; they're the parents who are currently at home, homeschooling their children. And as Robert said, many, many of them... in Wolverhampton it was predicted that 35,000 people had no access, and didn't go online, in the first three months of the pandemic, and about 59,000 people didn't have any of the core basic digital skills. Not only have they got no confidence, they've got no connectivity and they've got no devices. So whilst we might fix the problems with devices and connectivity, we've got a population who isn't confident.

Phil - Mary, what's this distinction you're drawing? What's learning as opposed to education? Is it the digital skills that you're talking about, or is it more?

Mary - No, I'm talking about everything: our ability in life to access information, make sense of that, and we modify our behaviour. So learning right from that basic information stage then moves into leisure, and gives us meaning, it gives us confidence, it teaches us problem solving skills, and our ability to be less reliant on the state. And as Robert just said, it has a massive role also in our ability to reduce isolation, and be creative through being able to knit, cook banana loaf, or whatever people are doing... but to get a sense of purpose and structure in our lives.

Phil - What's your version of that, Mary? Because you're a university - what does that look like for you? Are you just making websites available?

Mary - No. In a population as disadvantaged as Wolverhampton, where you've got 17 out of 20 of the wards showing massive issues around access to services, and benefits, and capability around digital, and confidence in devices, et cetera; and you've got the third highest youth unemployment rate in September last year, in a situation that's just going to get worse; then we have to go to the root of the problem, I think, and that is to understand what blocks people from thinking they can't learn. And so for Wolverhampton, what we do is we work not just to respond, but we work together to move beyond the initial problems that COVID has exacerbated, to start to address things like the fourth industrial revolution, where we're going to need new skills, new competencies. And we also make learning fun. We take learning to the community. We take learning to theatres, where parents and children can participate. We have Children's University, where children get credits for learning. And we have learning centres in the community where people can come, drop in, find out what they need, and get the support they need. And we run learning festivals.

Phil - A whole raft of stuff, Mary. I better throw this to Robert because I'd like to hear his take. Robert, you're not a cabinet minister. You don't have a portfolio. So you sort of have the opportunity to stand a little bit outside, and look at them and criticise maybe what's going on. Are they doing the kind of things Mary thinks are so important?

Robert - Well, I think we need to do a lot more. We've got 9 million adults without proper numeracy or literacy skills. And 53% of those who've left school aged 16 have not taken part in any learning since. What I'd like to see is a lot more investment in lifelong learning. I'd like to give every adult a lifelong learning account so that they would have a credit to choose adult education. We need to re-establish adult community learning centres in almost every town. And I'd also like to give skills tax credits to businesses who’ve trained their workers, because we are falling behind many other OECD countries in terms of our adult learning. And it's just been mentioned about the fourth industrial revolution: the world is going to change! 28% of jobs currently done by younger people may be lost by 2030 because of artificial intelligence. So there's going to need to be retraining, reskilling, all the time, in order to ensure that people have the opportunities, and can adjust to the changes that the fourth industrial revolution will bring.


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