Bishop of Worcester – lifelong learning should be as much about virtue and character as the acquisition of skills

On November 27th 2017  Lord Watson of Invergowrie led a debate in the House of Lords “To move that this House takes note of the case for a comprehensive strategy for life-long learning and adult re-skilling in response to the challenges of technology, productivity, and the changing nature of work.” The Bishop of Worcester, Rt Revd John Inge, spoke in the debate:

The Lord Bishop of Worcester: My Lords, I echo the thanks expressed to the noble Lord, Lord Watson, for securing this debate. It is clearly essential for the prosperity of our nation that lifelong learning is made a priority. Following cuts in the recent past, the Budget offered some welcome additional funding, including new funding for training in digital skills and construction, and the announcement of a retraining scheme for adults. The industrial strategy published today is a welcome step forward.

The problem, however, is immense, as has been acknowledged in your Lordships’ House today. There is still a great deal to be done as far as developing a proper long-term approach to improving adult skills is ​concerned. The Government acknowledge the importance of the task: its own industrial strategy Green Paper spoke of the,

“growing challenge with lifelong learning”,

with people,

“living and working longer, but training across working life … going down”.

It is also true to say that young people today can expect several careers, for which retraining will be necessary—ones for which they could never have planned in advance. I wish I had been reskilled to equip me to participate effectively in the House of Lords. That is a skill I never envisaged needing.

Longer-term support for the radical reform of professional and technical education—T-levels—is warmly to be welcomed, and it is good to see continued investment above that announced by the Education Secretary in the summer. Similarly, the emphasis on integrating high-quality and substantial work experience in these new programmes, along with the clause of the noble Lord, Lord Baker, requiring schools to open up careers education and the careers strategy announced in another place, are all needed, although they apply chiefly to younger students, not to adults who may be in low-skilled jobs or need retraining to meet new industries and new demands.

This task, as has been acknowledged, is both important and urgent. It is crucial to our economy and prosperity. However, any strategy should concentrate not just on particular skills. It is ironic, in my view, that we are concentrating more and more on the latter at a time when we know less and less about which skills will be needed in what the Motion refers to as,

“the changing nature of work”.

Over the last generation, we have seen an almost complete triumph of utilitarianism in education, wonderfully symbolised by the fact that higher education was for a while the responsibility of a department for “Business, Innovation and Skills”, not for education.

The irony is that such an approach is not as utilitarian as it seems. The Government Office for Science report Future of Skills & Lifelong Learning makes clear that employers are looking not just for relevant qualifications and/or discipline-related training but also for,

“more positive attitudes towards work as well as ‘character’ attributes”.

That word “character” is surely a very significant one. The idea of a university as a school of virtue seems to have disappeared, and training for virtue does not seem to happen much elsewhere, although it is one of the primary objectives of a Christian education. Virtue can be learned, and it is for the good of all that it should be.

The opportunity to engage in lifelong learning is of particular importance among those who have not flourished, for whatever reason, during their school career. I observed that at first hand during my time as a parish priest in the heart of industrial Tyneside. I am proud of the part that the Church was able to play in encouraging and enabling that, and the same is true in the Metropolitan Borough of Dudley in the Diocese of Worcester. Such learning enables people to secure better jobs but it also enhances their self-esteem ​immeasurably, which has a knock-on effect in wider society. Such benefits have been proven by research such as that recorded by the Government Office for Science. They include health, higher levels of interpersonal and social trust, social connections and social involvement, and crime reduction. It is a matter of grave concern that participation in part-time learning among adults has declined in the past few years.

I urge the Government to work harder and harder on developing a much-needed, bold and strategic approach to adult learning. Further, I submit that such an approach should acknowledge that lifelong learning needs to be about more than the acquisition of particular skills, important though that might be. The noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, referred to the failure of past comprehensive policies. Perhaps that is where they have gone wrong. Such a recognition would, it seems to me, have economic benefits, but much deeper and broader ones, not only for the individuals concerned but for society at large.


Lord Bichard (Crossbench): ..Before I touch on what we might do to address what is a crisis, a catastrophe—a word that has already been used—of lifelong learning, let us remember, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester reminded us a few moments ago, that this is not just a narrow economic issue. Lifelong learning is equally important to improving the quality of people’s lives. It is critical to social cohesion and well-being, not least in a digital age. It is a way to help people to stay independent, active and engaged as they grow older in an increasingly ageing society.

Lord Young of Norwood Green (Lab): … Employers require things such as problem solving, team working and empathy, which are a platform for transferrable skills. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester referred to the interesting idea of virtue. Perhaps I have encountered it under a different word: the concept of ethics in business. We know that when it is not applied, disastrous failures have taken place.

Viscount Younger of Leckie (Con, Minister)…as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester said, lifelong learning ensures that those who have underachieved academically, for whatever reason, have the chance to update their skills and increase their earnings. He also highlighted the link with self-esteem and well-being.

….Alongside the national retraining scheme, we aim to ensure that technical qualifications—the new T-levels—are accessible to adults. I am pleased that there was, generally, a warm welcome for this in the House today. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester mentioned it in his speech. We have worked through the Sainsbury review recommendations on technical education.

Lord Watson of Invergowrie (Lab)…The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester made an important point when he said that young people will need several careers, as they face a much longer working life than their parents or grandparents had. It seems that not all employers are yet fully aware of that; to some, age is still a disincentive to employment. Reskilling and retraining more than once in any working life will become second nature—it will certainly need to be. He also made a point about the access of adults to T-levels, which, as the Minister just said, is widely accepted and necessary.