Concerns have been raised over the decline in total adult FE participation at a time when the numbers of adult apprenticeships are surging.

Government data for 2010/11 shows the number of learners aged 19 and over in government funded FE and skills provision is 3,129,200; an 11.6 per cent drop from 3,540,500 the previous year.

Total participation in Adult Safeguarded Learning (ASL) is also down 10 per cent from 762,400 to 685,800.

In 2009/10, 99 per cent of participants in ASL were aged 19 or over, so NIACE say that this decrease represents “a significant drop” in the number of adult learners.

At the same time, and what also has been well documented, is the dramatic increase in 19+ apprenticeship starts, from 162,900 in 2009/10 to 314,400 in 2010/11; a jump of some 93 per cent.

Although not surprised, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE) is concerned.

David Hughes, chief executive of NIACE, said it can be difficult to say why there has been a drop, before adding: “There are a number of big concerns with participation numbers dropping.

“We are worrying about who is learning and, by definition, who also isn’t learning. Are some people missing?

“Are people learning the right things and getting the right support to benefit them in their lives? That’s really critical. Also, is what’s being offered what people want? Will the quality suffer?”

However, Mr Hughes added: “This hasn’t really surprised us. It’s very clear this year that participation had slowed. Maybe we’re seeing a reverse of gains we’ve had in previous years.”

A drop in ASL participation is expected, say NIACE, in tough economic times, as it is the part of the system most “heavily reliant on fee income” and numbers will decrease as “disposable income is squeezed”.

He added: “The danger is we lose them in the recession, which will be a shame and won’t put us in the right position when the economy picks up again. Skills,  learning and development have to be at the heart of that.”

As budgets are squeezed, NIACE say it is “crucial to ensure any drive to increase numbers does not lead to a compromise on quality”.

They also say the expansion in apprenticeships has raised questions around whether shorter frameworks can deliver the rigorous learning experience the apprenticeship brand is associated.

Mr Hughes said: “There’s less money and more is being directed at things that cost more. Apprenticeships cost more than NVQs, but that’s not a bad thing because the return is higher.

“But the balance is something that concerns us.”

He added: “Apprenticeship investment is based on average prices. So if it’s right for some, then clearly it’s wrong for others.

“Also, if the length of stay is shorter then you have to think if the right amount of money is being paid.

“A 12-week course doesn’t need as much as a longer course.”

NIACE also say a relevant curriculum offer is important, but information, advice and guidance is also key to ensuring learners are getting the right help to access and succeed in learning.

Mr Hughes said: “The new National Careers Service will be a vital information resource for those seeking to enter or advance in learning and it must be accessible and impartial if we are to see participation levels meaningfully increased.”