Monday 25 March 2019 8:12 am

School’s not out – Britain must become a nation of lifelong learners

For the United Kingdom as for the wider OECD, the most important resources we have are the talents and endeavours of our citizens.

However, this is an asset that we are currently failing to nurture as well as we should.

The typical refrain from policymakers in response to this challenge is to consider how each new generation of children can be better prepared than the last.

We ask how standards can be improved in schools, how children from the most disadvantaged families can have their prospects lifted, and how more pupils can become students in the higher education sector at 18.

These are all vital questions, and there is nothing wrong with an instinct that children are the future. But this represents only half of the story.

Much of Britain’s future prosperity and social cohesion depends on how the existing workforce adapts to the emerging and rapidly changing labour market.

The government of David Lloyd George recognised this a century ago, casting adult education as “a permanent national necessity, an inseparable aspect of citizenship”, which should be “both universal and lifelong”.

Yet a century later, only 1.5 per cent of the UK education budget is spent on adult education. As we approach the 2020s, we risk leaving behind a generation presently aged in their 40s and 50s.

The challenge was given popular expression last week in Britain’s long-running soap Coronation Street. The fictional textiles factory workers have been told that their jobs in Lancashire are to be taken over by robots in Milton Keynes.

PwC estimates that a third of UK jobs could be similarly put at risk through breakthroughs in artificial intelligence during the next 15 years.

Last year, we convened an independent commission on the topic lifelong learning. With two thirds of businesses warning that the skills gap is a threat to the UK’s global competitiveness – and more than half not confident that there will be enough people in future with the necessary proficiencies to fill their high-skilled jobs – there was a clear problem.

After consulting with educators, employers and governments, last week we published the first report of our analysis and proposals to usher in a new era of learning throughout life. Key to this effort is making entry to education easier, accelerated by a refocusing of investment to put power in the hands of individuals and employers.

To help adult learners meet the costs of studying, our commission developed costed and comprehensive plans for a universal Personal Education and Skills Account (Pesa) for all adults in the UK. The government would contribute a total of £9,000 to the accounts in three installments, at the ages of 25, 40 and 55.

Employers and individuals could top up the accounts if they chose, and would benefit from tax relief or match-funding when they did. At times of increased unemployment or recession, the accounts would serve as a useful vehicle for government stimulus.

The Pesas would nurture human talent as our workforce moves from an era of multiple jobs to multiple careers. The government could complement these accounts – not dissimilar to Isas or pensions – with a renewed focus on career advice and support, helping people to anticipate and ready themselves for their next move.

Crucially, the investment required would mean refocusing less than one fifth of the current adult learning and apprenticeship levy budgets.

This would be a confident and clear reform to stimulate our nation’s workforce. It would put power in the hands of individuals and employers. And it is already gaining support across the political spectrum.

A century on from Lloyd George’s rallying cry, now is the time to prioritise Britain’s greatest asset – our people – and enable all citizens the opportunity to work, earn and learn.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.