Is the Workplace ‘Skills for Life’ Provision Sustainable in the UK?


Since the launch of the national ‘Skills for Life’ strategy in 2001, the UK government has invested heavily in a drive to improve literacy, numeracy and ESOL provision, an important dimension of which has been the funding (largely through the former Learning and Skills Council) of ‘Skills for Life’ courses in the workplace. Drawing on longitudinal data from the ESRC-funded ‘Adult Basic Skills and Workplace learning’ project (2003-2008), together with findings from Project 2 in LLAKES Strand 3, this paper seeks to explore the key factors that facilitate and inhibit sustainable ‘Skills for Life’ workplace provision.

We draw on the metaphor of a social ecology of learning to explore the inter-relationships between individuals and groups at policy and organisational level and combine this with Michael de Certeau’s theoretical work on quotidian social practices in order to cast light on the diverse ways in which ‘Skills for Life’ provision has been put to use by learners. The paper argues that the ‘Skills for Life’ national strategy has generated a complex ‘ecology of learning’ at policy level, whereby a byzantine and shifting funding landscape, with its concomitant bureaucracy and strong emphasis on credentialism has militated against long-term sustainable provision. Those organisations that have managed to sustain provision have generally succeeded in integrating ‘Skills for Life’ courses within a broader ‘ecology of learning’ whereby there is both support and formal recognition for such provision within the organisation as a whole. The development of literacy, numeracy and ESOL courses within these organisations approximates (rather than complies fully with) the ‘Whole Organisation’ approaches advocated by ‘Skills for Life’ development agencies. Although these recommendations represent an optimum strategy for developing the capacity of organisations to deliver long-term ‘Skills for Life’ provision, the ‘third-order’ priority of learning within the workplace means that it is difficult in practice to establish sustainability in most organisations.