Adult Learning loud and clear

In the fourth of our series, Simon Parkinson makes the case for a new national promotional campaign to raise participation in adult learning.

Twenty years ago, the Government ran a mass media campaign to promote courses for basic literacy and maths. The Skills for Life programme was a flagship of education policy, albeit borne out of the embarrassment of a worrying report on the low levels of basic skills in the nation.

It was accompanied by TV advertising which wasn’t to everyone’s taste (remember the Gremlins chiding people for their lack of proficiency?) but it certainly proved effective. By 2005, the (then) DfES reported that just over one million people had achieved basic English or maths qualifications as a direct result of the marketing drive. The full story of Skills for Life is told in an excellent report from the Further Education Trust for Leadership, which also updates the story to make recommendations for today’s funders and policy makers.

Yet in the years since, participation rates have dropped and rates of literacy and numeracy have fallen back. And we can now add digital skills (around 10 million adults lack the basics) as much more central to our lives than in 2001. So what has happened? 

As we noted in the last blog, funding rates have dropped significantly and the financial support for students has also changed over the period. “Entitlements” to English, maths and now digital courses are in place, so in theory at least, opportunities are there for adult learners. Yet the participation rates do not increase. 

The last major participation survey before the pandemic (by the Learning & Work Institute) suggested that no single barrier stood out as keeping people from taking up adult learning. When asked what stopped them, most said they simply weren’t interested. Work and time pressures were next most frequent. Very few people said that they were held back because they did not know what was available but could that really be true? Do most people know what is available or even what they are entitled to? 

It cannot be right that we have falling participation rates and an acknowledgement that skills at all levels need lifting and yet around 40% of adults say there is nothing stopping them learning or that they have no need to. 

There seems to be a gap between those who are already in the adult education “tent”, who almost universally report making progress and finding the experience worthwhile - and those who have left education behind and see no further relevance. 

The research on participation points to attitudes and perceptions being a more common barrier than situation (e.g. transport and childcare, significant though they are). It follows that one of the best ways to raise participation is to change perceptions. 

Gremlins were criticised because they scared people into taking part but the stories in reports such as the WEA’s Creating Opportunities offer inspiration through more positive role models, and meaningful results. “I don’t need to learn” can be turned into “I can see the point in learning because I can see what it’s done for others like me”. 

Our understanding of how mass media and social media can influence behaviour has progressed considerably since 2001 and a concerted campaign to enthuse the nation about adult learning would look and feel very different now. It certainly wouldn’t be TV ads alone. 

While survey respondents say that it’s not lack of knowledge of opportunities which is holding them back, we also know that adult learners either come onto courses because they are already in the system (in education or job seeking) or by personal referral (family and friends). Rarely do adult learners sign up without that organisational or personal prompt. 

But we can’t rely on a word of mouth approach to promote adult learning or it will never reach new audiences. 

The Skills for Life campaign will have repaid its budget many times over with over a million people building on their new maths and English qualifications in the twenty years since. The current Government is rightly proud of its new offers for Level 3 qualifications and new programmes for improving numeracy. But how effective will those programmes be if people are not aware that they are entitled to them? Will they reach the people who need them most and will they create the attitudinal changes which will inspire participants into further learning? 

If lifelong learning is going to be something which becomes part of our everyday culture and conversation as well as being accessible and available to all, then it needs a new language from the top. Not Boot Camps but Learning Within Reach.  

The message needs to get through that adult learning is for everyone and available wherever you live. It needs to be shame free, aspirational and part of a community. National messages should be adapted and adopted by local leaders and role models. In that organic way, eventually the 40% who do not feel that learning is for them will come round to seeing the connection with everyday lives and ambitions. Only central government has the resources to back the campaign at scale but it will be the networks of learners, providers, partners and supporters who really make it come to in a way that wasn’t available twenty years ago. The Gremlins had their day but the future of adult learning will be built on the power of 21st century social media and community networks.