3 key actions: Cost of living and the impact on learning and employers

11 Jul 2022 02:17 PM

The ‘cost of living crisis’ is, by now, a term that we’re all too familiar with. As defined by the Institute for Government, the phrase relates to “the fall in ‘real’ disposable incomes that the UK has experienced since late 2021” and is primarily caused by benefit increases, high inflation outstripping wage, and recent tax increases.

The effects are being seen, and felt, all around us. The cost of energy and petrol has skyrocketed, food banks continue to be relied upon, and overall inflation has jumped to the highest level in 40 years. We’re also starting to see the negative impact on education and employment. For example, employers may be reluctant to offer work placements in response to rising operating costs, or learners who can’t afford not to work might leave their training or study for paid work.

This is why, at the recent AELP National Conference 2022, we hosted a workshop titled “Cost of Living and the Impact on Learning and Employers”. The topic isn’t an easy one to broach – after all, it's an ever-evolving issue that no one has all the answers to. But the impacts being felt – particularly by those who are already the most disadvantaged in our society – means that it is critical to address and examine at this time.

Here, we summarise some of the key actions explored by the delegates who attended our workshop which our sector can take to begin to address the impact of the crisis.

Flexibility is key

Since spending money on solutions isn’t always a viable option, a key theme that came up in our facilitated discussions was that we’ll need to be smart and find different ways to meet the needs of the crisis. For example, flexibility, and the many benefits that being flexible can have for learning and work, will be key.

For learners who may be required to pick up a part-time job alongside their study in order to make ends meet, how and where can providers and educators be flexible to ensure that their learning isn’t affected? Can remote delivery support with the conflicting needs of needing to both work and study? Can timetables be flexible to allow learners to work and study? Or perhaps, teaching and learning sessions could be recorded and made available on demand?

Being as flexible as possible to support learners to stay in education will have both a short and long-term impact socially and economically, whilst also giving individuals the best possible chance to thrive.

The importance of early identification

In cases where flexibility is not feasible or the impact is already being felt, learners may leave education or training for paid work before any intervention can be made. This is why the idea of early identification was another key theme in our workshop, as we explored and discussed the systems that could be utilised to support with this.

Monitoring attendance is one way that colleges and providers may be able to spot where issues could be arising. Looking for patterns of absence or a low overall attendance rate may indicate that education is being skipped as a result of clashing with paid work shifts – or, possibly, other cost of living-related issues, such as being unable to afford to commute to college.

Having open and honest conversations with your learners about the impact of the crisis is another way that early identification could occur. Even though you may have no readily available solutions to offer, having the awareness of where learners are potentially struggling is fundamental to assessing each individual’s situation.

Identifying struggling learners and associated risks at the earliest possible stage offers the best chance to be proactive in seeking support and assistance, and in building relationships with these individuals.

Signposting and sharing resources

It’s clear that collaboration will be key to an effective and coordinated response to this crisis. By working in partnership with other organisations, pooling our resources, and signposting towards helpful tools and services, we’ll be able to create networks of support and connect individuals to the help that they need.

From mental health support to financial advice, charities and organisations such as MindCitizens Advice and National Energy Action are all helpful national organisations, able to provide advice and guidance to those who need it. However, in the current climate, it’s also imperative that colleges are aware of their local area and services on offer – as these organisations will be best placed to understand both national and regional needs and the types of help available.

Proactively working together to create these networks of support and shared resources is crucial to providing imminent help to those who need it most.

Movement needs collaborators

To conclude, it’s worth reminding ourselves that no one has all the answers to this incredibly complex issue – neither us, nor other education-based organisations. But we do hope that the above list of actions, as a result of the discussion within our workshop, can serve as a useful starting point for some quick, practical measures.

In the longer term, there will be many people with asks for the Government, enquiring about what can be done to mitigate the worsening of this crisis. But in the shorter term – the here and now – it seems clear that we’ll need to work together to provide links to immediate support for the most disadvantaged learners. This is crucial in order to give them the best chance of continuing on their lifelong learning journey and fulfilling their potential.