We congratulate our colleagues at the Learning & Work Institute for another valuable insight into the state of adult learning through the annual Participation survey. As always, the survey highlights important trends, both reassuring and worrying.
It is striking this year that participation in adult learning is at its highest since the survey began, with nearly half of adult participating in learning in the last three years. As the researchers conclude, this illustrates the great appetite and need for adult learning.
Beneath the headline, however, and as the researchers also point out, there are some worrying undercurrents.
The increase in adult learning has mostly been driven by better off and older learners taking part in their spare time for personal development. This is very welcome in some respects as the health and wellbeing impacts, including reducing social isolation, will be very powerful for those learners.
The story is not so positive for those from lower income groups and from the most underserved areas of the country, where learning rates remain lower:
The decrease in learning and training in the workplace is also of serious concern.
Looking ahead, there is a clear need for better investment in three areas:
- Community-based adult learning: through providers such as the WEA who have a track record of working with adults from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, groups and areas. This can help progression into work and further study for adult learners who might otherwise miss out
- Employer-led training and learning: employer bodies should be incentivised to work with community providers and unions to ensure that those already in the workforce, particularly in lower paid roles, receive professional development
- Learning for health and well-being: the most encouraging trend in the new survey points to adults learning for personal development and well-being. This should be more widely available and it is highly concerning that the government plans to remove funding for what it terms “leisure learning”. Taking up learning for personal reasons is often the starting point for adults to then progress onto more formal pathways into work or qualifications. It also has considerable health and community benefits, reducing pressure on the NHS and encouraging more active communities. The survey suggests a growth in better off self-starting learners who may be able to pay for their own courses. Support is still needed for those potential adult learners of the future, particularly those from lower income backgrounds, who need to build their confidence to learn and who need the financial framework to fund their studies.
Once again, we congratulate the Learning & Work Institute for an essential report. We now look to the Chancellor and the Department for Education to increase support for the half of the population who have not participated in adult learning recently and who could be increasing their skills for life and work.