How can technology support those not well served by mainstream skills provision?

Authors: Jess Elmore, Deputy Head of Research and Tom Bradley, Researcher, Learning and Work Institute


In this blog we explore the themes and findings from UFI VocTech Trust first workshop on 9th February 2023. It was attended by people with specialisms in adult learning, employment support, digital inclusion, women, homelessness, and older people. We talked about what skills people need in today’s economy, as well as the barriers that prevent people upskilling and re-skilling, and how digital technologies could address these barriers.

Some of the key themes from the workshop included: how we can simplify the skills landscape; enable flexible learning and re-learning; make learning more accessible; ensure everyone has the digital skills and access they need; and how we can optimise digital delivery.  The questions and provocations emerging from these themes will inform our thinking as we continue to shape the VocTech Challenge: Skills for an economy in transition.


1. Simplify the skills landscape

It is well known that the education and skills landscape in the UK is fragmented and complex. Stakeholders discussed the systemic barriers caused by the short-termism of the funding landscape, the impact of policy silos and isolated delivery, as well as expanding on the lack of system-wide visibility for learners.

Provision is funded and commissioned by different local and national government departments and agencies across different funding streams and delivered by a wide range of providers working across different local areas.

This fragmentation means it can be difficult for individuals to understand what training is available to them, what it can be used for, how it can connect to employment and how it can be funded. This is an acute challenge for particular groups, such as prisoners who are moved between areas, and may find training they have completed untransferable to their new area.

A lack of coordination and long-term funding also means it’s difficult for providers and policy makers to address systemic barriers. Workshop participants told us about fantastic local projects and pilots across the UK that were supporting adults to upskill and re-skill. However, learning and good practice from these projects was not sustained due to short-term funding.

A golden thread was the power of locally tailored solutions, which recognised the diversity of learners. Patterns included rural and urban, digital inclusion and exclusion through infrastructure and technology access, re-skilling for local industry contraction and growth, and differentiated approaches by age and community connectedness of learners.

Some participants commented on the emerging Local Skills Improvement Plans (LSIPs) in England, which were seen as having the potential to improve coordination of employment and skills provision in local areas, however, consideration of how to engage those furthest from employment or education needs to be built into the statutory guidance. We are keen to also understand the opportunities for better skills/employment integration across the four nations.

Workshop participants were also interested in the potential of developing flexible learning pathways such as digital badges that could help people navigate the transition from community learning and FE, or port qualifications between different learning providers.

2. Enabling flexible learning and re-learning

A key takeaway was that lifelong learning policy shouldn’t only focus on the specific skills that adults need to acquire. It should also be about enabling people to learn and re-learn through their lives.

Building confidence and motivating people to want to learn is central to enabling lifelong learning. Providers reported that motivated digital learners shared many learning preferences across the generations. However, there were still some distinct preferences for learning style among different groups. People who haven't succeeded in conventional educational settings are often unaware of the skills they already possess. Supporting learners to develop confidence in themselves and educational institutions is critical if they are to recognise the skills they already have and learn to apply them in new ways.

Finding ways to keep people in a cycle of participation, where they can dip in and out of learning across their lives was a key ambition for workshop participants. This could include mid-life MOTs to support people through longer working lives. For example, older people who need to retrain, may need their confidence building in the face of discrimination that could limit their ambitions.

3. Make learning more accessible

Accessibility of provision was identified as a key barrier to learning. There is no one size fits all approach to make learning accessible, as the barriers people face are multi-faceted and individual. Current funding regulations can mean people can’t afford to re-train in the sector they want, because they already have a different qualification at the same level. Reductions in the Adult Education Budget means that provision isn’t delivered when and where people need it. ESOL was consistently mentioned as an area where demand outstrips supply, and people can’t access local provision. Barriers are experienced in cross-cutting ways by different groups, for example women can find it difficult to access evening courses because of childcare responsibilities or because they don’t feel safe out alone at night, while older people can feel that learning that is too much like school is not for them. Online learning can address some of these barriers but can also exclude those without the necessary access to technology or digital skills.

Access to learning was said to have been worsened by the cost-of-living crisis, with more people experiencing poverty. Basic amenities like internet access, mobile phones and transport are out of reach for many, meaning that learning and training are not a priority. Equally the increasing number of people in insecure low paid work, who may have two or three different jobs may not have time to invest in re-training.

Making learning accessible for those who are bearing the brunt of the cost-of-living crisis was put forward as a potential priority.


4. Ensure everyone has the digital skills and access they need

Participants saw digital skills as foundational for learning as well as impacting on all aspects of life, from searching for work to accessing social support. The expansion of the Essential Digital Skills Framework in England, putting digital skills on a par with literacy and numeracy, was welcomed by attendees.

However, they had two key reflections on digital skills training. Firstly, digital skills need to be taught holistically with the emphasis on how people are using technologies in their everyday lives rather than as a checklist of skills to be completed.

Secondly, investing in digital skills training will only be effective if digital exclusion is also tackled and people have access to the technology they need. This is especially true in rural locations, where a lack of fast internet and strong social infrastructure can make it difficult for residents to engage in learning. This requires significant government investment in infrastructure – without this, there are limits to the impact that digital skills training can have.

5. Optimise digital delivery

The boost in online delivery since the Coronavirus pandemic has allowed people to engage with learning in their own time, while making digital content more interactive and easily digestible. Participants talked about technologies that helped ESOL learners, homeless people or older people engage in learning. Attractive and effective learning technologies were said to be personalised, have minimal text, use games, stories and videos and offer bitesize learning.

However, face to face learning was still seen as important to establish relationships, build confidence and set expectations. Participants were therefore keen to consider how technology can be used to deliver high quality hybrid or blended learning rather than shifting to completely digital offers.

More consideration also needs to be given to how people are engaging with technology in their everyday lives and how this could be used effectively in delivery. Organisations were described as using educational technologies that matched their branding, or fitted within their existing digital infrastructure, rather than using technology to meet people where they are. There was a need to replicate the ease of using tools such as WhatsApp and YouTube while addressing the ethical and social concerns that these technologies bring.

So, what’s next?

We are holding two more workshops on the 1st and 2nd of March, followed by a series of focus groups with providers, learners, non-learners and recent career changers. Together we will publish our findings in a series of articles which along with our own research will inform a white paper that sets out a programme of grant funding, partnerships, and advocacy.

Thank you to the workshop contributors for an interesting and insightful discussion: Hayley Dunne (Chwarae Teg), Tom Onions (Maximus), Kim Chaplain (Centre for Ageing Better), Sharon Wagg (University of Sheffield), Sarah Belhay (EY Foundation), Hannah Whelan (Good Things Foundation), Chloe Knight (St Mungo’s), Tom Kenyon (The RSA).