Guest blog: Why is it easier to leave education than re-join it?

By John Butcher, Associate Director (Curriculum and Access), The Open University

In June, the Further Education Trust for Leadership published a new report, commissioned by the WEA, called Learning At Life Transitions. (Download your copy of the report here). The report explores barriers and motivations for adult learners at key life transitions (returning to work, preparing to retire) and makes recommendations for practitioners and policy makers.

The preparation of the report was informed by a steering group of adult, further and higher education experts and it is intended to spark debate amongst influencers and thought leaders.

In the first of a short series of responses and reactions to the report, John Butcher of the Open University (who was a member of the steering group) explores what policy makers can do to inspire adult learners.

I was pleased to attend the launch event last month for the report ‘Learning at Life Transitions’, based on research conducted for the WEA around two key themes in adult education: supporting learners returning to work and supporting learners preparing to retire. Disseminated just a couple of weeks after the publication of Augar’s report to the UK Government’s Review of Post-18 Education and Funding in England, the findings and recommendations offer further stimulus to the urgent and existential question: ‘What is to be done about adult education?’

Data informing the ‘Learning at Life Transitions’ report yet again identifies the decline in lifelong learning, echoing critical concerns raised in Augar, and by the Office for Students, about the alarming reduction in adult participation in part-time higher education. The dramatic drop in adult students engaging with any form of education is symptomatic of a fundamental and systemic problem in the UK – policy is infatuated and preoccupied with funding opportunities for 18 year-olds studying full-time. 

For those of us committed to providing transformative educational opportunities for adults, the Augar report offered some potential crumbs of comfort. Quietly loosening the shackles of the FE/HE divide by focusing on the post-compulsory system was a smart starting point, and intimations of flexible lifelong learning loans, credit-based systems, the removal of stifling ELQ rules and reform of the fee cap all offered food for thought. Ensuring this system works for all students from all backgrounds whatever mode of study they choose is imperative. This absolutely must include distance learners. The identification of skills gaps in relation to employability is hardly surprising, but the complete absence of any mention of soft skills in the 200+ pages reveals much. As my colleagues have persistently commented, critical interpretation of Augar’s impact on the broken adult learning market is impossible, as ‘the devil will be in the detail’.

In contrast, ‘Learning at Life Transitions’ explores the issue (familiar territory for all practitioners working with adults) by taking a forensic look at two specific challenges: first, adult engagement in learning at retirement, and second, the barriers faced by adults motivated to return to work and learning after caring for children. In both cases issues facing adults are under-researched, under-theorised and under-conceptualised, and as such this report is to be welcomed. 

A clear finding for those adults approaching retirement was the need for learning opportunities to be relevant, flexible, short-term, local and low-cost – the curriculum needed to be broad and to offer adults enjoyable learning (perhaps for the first time). I was surprised and fascinated that the retired were reported as most likely to be learning online. However, barriers were attitudinal (feeling ‘too old’ to learn), and the perception that learning was a cost rather than an investment.

In contrast, it was reported that carers outside the labour market were the least engaged in learning. A key driver was the need for affordable childcare, and for bite-size cheap tasters supporting employability skills (cost regarded more as an investment). In both cases, a lack of confidence was identified as a key barrier. 

Given the diminished opportunities faced by many adults currently not engaged in learning, policy makers need to inspire adults to re-join education. Why wouldn’t they want to stimulate employability, social cohesion and a more just and equal society? 

Download your copy of the report here