2020 Autumn Term 2

The know zone

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What is the government’s new pledge for lifetime learning? ASCL Post-16 and Colleges Specialist Kevin Gilmartin explores the detail behind the headline announcement.

Lifetime Learning Guarantee

Lifelong learning is not a new idea. When the Prime Minister made his much-heralded speech on ‘lifetime learning’ at Exeter College on 29 September (https://tinyurl.com/y6q7tcae), he referred to a “lifetime skills guarantee”. It was this eye-catching phrase that has attracted so much attention in education and training circles. It is surely an admirable aspiration for any government of any political persuasion but what does it mean? 

The background 

The government has long been concerned about the rate of return on different types of qualifications, that is, does a qualification represent a good investment of time and money for the individual concerned and – crucially – is it a good investment by the public purse? Philip Augar’s review of post-18 education and funding in 2019 made a number of recommendations to address this and other issues (https://tinyurl.com/y4f2sr6m). It is clear that the government is now planning to take some of these on board. 

Along with this rate of return concern, we have the economic fallout from Covid-19. The government seems to view this as an opportunity to ask: “What type of skills do we want to see in a post-Covid recovery?” The government has decreed that it is not a matter for the market to decide. Instead, it has directed its funding at the types of qualifications and training that it sees as providing the long-term retraining and reskilling solution for the country – as well as giving better rates of return on investment. 

When we then consider that the major review of Level 3 and below qualifications (https://tinyurl.com/y3wwxtxh) is due to report in October and an FE white paper and spending review are due in November, it seems as if there may be an alignment of policies that we have not seen in post-16 education since incorporation, nearly 30 years ago.

Free qualifications?

The headline of the ‘lifetime skills guarantee’ is that technical courses equivalent to Level 3 qualifications (A levels or Applied General qualifications) will be free for adults who have not yet achieved this level. Critics will argue that we have not yet seen what qualifications are on the eligible list, or that this ignores the millions of adults who need to get a Level 2 qualification first. However, it could well provide a new lease of life for many adults to retrain and a lifeline for underfunded colleges to gain new cohorts of learners. 


There is also the promise of flexibility in student finance for alternatives to ‘traditional’ degree subjects. It should therefore be just as easy for individuals to obtain a student loan for a ‘higher technical course’, as they can presently obtain for a university degree. 

This flexible ‘lifelong loan entitlement’ would be for four years of post-18 education. It should be easier to take part-time courses locally. Finance will be provided for shorter-term studies, rather than having to study in year-long blocks as at present. 

Again, this should be good news for FE colleges who would hope to be the natural home for these types of qualifications, although universities will also be eyeing this market. However, the issue of maintenance loans for the new ‘FE technical undergraduates’ is an area that is not yet addressed. 

Flexibility is also promised in curriculum planning and delivery. The aim is that with individuals breaking up their study into segments, students can transfer credits between institutions, even moving from an FE college to a university and vice versa.


Apprenticeship reforms remain rather more unclear. The mantra of more ‘high-quality apprenticeships’ is vague. More freedom for employers in spending their levy money is likely as are financial incentives for employers to take on apprentices. However, quite how this will play out post-furlough, and with the advent of competing schemes such as Kickstart, remains unclear. 


The government direction for the skills agenda does seem positive, particularly for FE colleges. More capital funding, more ‘free’ courses for adult students and more flexibility in loan funding must be welcomed. 

It may not be an investment in ‘lifelong learning’ per se – but it does seem an investment in some aspects of it, that is, self-sustainability, competitiveness and employability. 

With competing national funding priorities though, let us hope that the ‘guarantee’ means exactly that.

Kevin Gilmartin
ASCL Post-16 and Colleges Specialist