CALLS have been made to invest in adult education to help tackle the region's low skills base.

The North East Chamber of Commerce has written to the Government, urging it to expand adult education to help people re-enter work.

Chamber chief James Ramsbotham said: "Our region is facing many structural economic challenges which will fundamentally alter how the skills system needs to operate.

"These challenges include not just the Covid-19 pandemic, but also the UK’s exit from the European Union and the shift to more automation and digitisation. 

  “The pandemic has rapidly accelerated a technological evolution. The onus will, therefore, be on the skills system to help people re-enter work and, where necessary, new sectors of the economy."

"Research has consistently shown a strong correlation between adults undertaking education and training courses and successfully re-entering work, particularly for non-graduates.” 

In November, the Institute of Fiscal Studies found spending on adult education was nearly two-thirds lower in real terms than in 2003-04 and about 50 per cent lower than in 2009-10.

Latest figures show unemployment in the North-East is at 6.6 per cent for the three months to the end of October, with Hartlepool, South Tyneside and Middlesbrough the worst affected areas in the UK.

Mr Ramsbotham added: "Ensuring that our skills system is fit for purpose is integral to the North-East’s future prosperity and ability to level up.

"The North-East entered this crisis with an already high unemployment rate, which leaves the region disproportionately vulnerable to any national increase in joblessness.” 

The chamber is calling for efforts to be made in tackling barriers preventing adults from taking part in education and training.

Currently, support is only available for people who do not have a Level 3 qualification and training is not allowed for people on benefits, who want to attend more than 16 hours of tuition a week.

The Government, which is expected to publish a white paper on further education in the autumn, has already committed to restore public funding for first full Level 3 qualifications for all age groups from April.

It has also announced a National Skills Fund, with £375 million committed in November's spending review.

The Chamber letter was co-signed by members Darren Hankey, of Hartlepool College and Nadine Hudspeth, from Gateshead College. 

It says: "Government focus since March has rightly been on short-term survival.

"However, the need for a fundamental transformation of the adult education system has never been more apparent.

"Although the announcement of the National Skills Fund, increased college capital funding and the Lifetime Skills Guarantee are steps in the right direction, it will not be enough to turn the tide of a decade of neglect."

Mr Hankey said he was "saddened" by the demise of adult education, and record low levels of participation.

He said: "Report after report highlight the impact of this on those folk who could do with this service the most. Folk like me who, for whatever reason, didn’t maximise the opportunities formal education provided.

"I also think the way the jobs market has evolved in recent years has not helped.

"The rise of precarious jobs usually means that those who undertake these roles are less likely to benefit from work-sponsored training/education and also have limited time or finances to make these investments themselves."