Adult Education works – but we need to make it work for more people

Supporting more adults into learning

Adult learning is central to government’s ambitions to raise productivity, improve living standards, help people to adapt to changes in the economy and support social mobility. As shown by the WEA’s latest impact report Adult Education works, adult learning has the potential to address the UK’s big challenges, whilst also transforming the lives of individuals and families.

Despite this, we have seen a significant decline in investment over the last decade, with government spending on adult education falling by 47% between 2009/10 and 2018/19.  It is perhaps unsurprising therefore that the latest figures, published by Learning and Work Institute, show that just one in three UK adults (33%) have taken part in any form of learning or training in the past 3 years, the lowest figure on record. 

If we are to reverse this decline, then alongside further investment, we also need to better understand how we encourage and support more adults into learning – with a particular focus on the estimated 20 million UK adults who have not engaged in learning or training since leaving full time education. So, what does the survey tell us about how we might begin to do this?

One of the surveys’ most striking (and perhaps obvious) findings is that learning begets learning. In other words, the best way to help someone become a lifelong learner is to get them started. In our survey, 77% of adults who are currently learning say that they intend do more learning in the next three years. This compares with fewer than 1 in 6 of those who have not done any learning since leaving full time education. 

When asked about why they aren’t engaged in learning, adults identified a range of practical barriers – time, cost, caring responsibilities. However, in a change from previous years’ survey findings, the most frequently cited reason is lack of interest and relevance. There is a clear message here. Yes, we need to work hard to ensure that learning opportunities are accessible and affordable, and that support – such as childcare – is available. But we need to put just as much effort into ensuring that learning is relevant to people’s interests and aspirations, and into explicitly showing how learning can help them to achieve their ambitions and goals. 

We should also remember that every journey starts with a first step. As well as creating clear progression routes to enable learners to achieve their goals, we also need to provide a broad range of opportunities for adults to ‘have a go’ at learning, to build their confidence, and to whet their appetite to learn more. 

In response to these survey findings, Learning and Work Institute is calling on government to set out a cross-government strategy for lifelong learning alongside a significant increase in public investment. But it will take all of us to work together if we are to successfully reverse the decade of decline in adult learning. Demonstrating the difference that learning can make to individuals, families and communities – and helping adults get started on this journey is something in which we all have a part to play. 


Dr Fiona Aldridge is Director of Policy and Research at Learning and Work Institute