The work of one inner-city charity offers a blue print for bridging the skills gap and bringing society closer together, says its chief executive Anthony Harmer.
In less than two years' time, Britain will be standing alone, outside the European Union and probably outside the single market as well. This is a good time for us to start imagining what we want our country to look like in 2018, and to begin putting the plans in place to make it happen.
From my perspective, we face two big challenges ahead. The first is how we address the national skills gap – the difference between the skills demanded by our economy and the skills already possessed by our workforce. This gap has been growing for years and it is likely to widen dramatically if fewer highly qualified people from the EU are able to plug the skills gaps in the UK workforce due to more stringent visa restrictions when Britain leaves the single market.
That will have serious implications for businesses recruiting in the UK, with a knock-on effect to the economy as a whole.
The second big challenge is how to ensure that our society continues to flourish as one of the most open, diverse and creative out there. We live in a global world and we shouldn’t allow Eurosceptism to transform into a small-minded fear of difference.
So how are we going to address those challenges? When I need inspiration, I look around me to the people living and working in my local area, Hackney in East London.
Hackney is a proudly diverse place. Two-fifths of our residents were born outside the UK; we have large African, Caribbean, Turkish and East European populations (that have been here for many generations), as well as more recent migrants from Western Europe, Australasia and the US.
The largest Haredi Jewish community in Europe lives alongside Christians, Muslims and people of no religion. Hackney residents get along well together and the main thing we’re proud of is the area’s diversity.
As a musician, I’m also inspired by the many sons and daughters of Hackney who’ve contributed to our nation’s art and culture – surely a product of our borough’s multicultural melting pot.
Of course, not everything in Hackney is perfect. It’s one of the country's most deprived areas, with distressingly high levels of child poverty, below-average employment rates and job growth concentrated in part-time and low-paid work.
Yet in my work at ELATT, a charity that has spent over 30 years tackling worklessness and poverty in the local area, I see what people of all backgrounds can achieve when we give them the tools to succeed.
Take Salma, now a market research professional who came to Hackney after being forced from her homeland by civil war. At first, Salma struggled to find work in London, so she enrolled on an English language course at ELATT. Alongside her course, she got volunteering experience, developed her employability skills and later progressed to an IT qualification. #
Now she’s working as an office administrator and looking forward to building her family’s future in London. Stories like Salma’s make me proud to work in adult education. They also make me determined to share the knowledge we’ve developed in our sector with the people who make policy decisions on a national level.
I firmly believe our experience of working with adults to develop their skills in a diverse environment is the way forward for a post-Brexit Britain.
Firstly, I’m convinced that social integration is fundamental to improving our society. Genuine community and workplace diversity combats negative stereotypes and builds social cohesion. ELATT has worked with thousands of migrants and refugees - and with their involvement and passion we have seen communities positively transform.
To do that, we need to invest in an adult skills sector that takes a holistic approach to learning. That means a sector that harnesses the variety of talents within our adult learners, one that is inter-disciplinary and multi-skilled and takes learners out of the classroom and into the workplace or community.
Skills development and social integration run side-by-side. That’s true for young people who’ve been marginalised from education, it’s true for long-term unemployed adults and it’s also true for new migrants and refugees.
Like many providers in the third sector, our model of integration includes English training, basic and vocational skills and community volunteering for adults. We believe equipping refugees and their children with a range of English, digital, technical and work skills is the best way to prepare them to participate in the UK marketplace and make us the global leader in skills and training.
And one more thing – adult learning should be fun. When Ofsted came to ELATT, it was struck by the down-to-earth humour of our teachers and learners. It’s no accident that they picked up on this. Communities are built on positivity, on laughter and on hope for the future. Now, more than ever, we should remember that.