Adult Learners’ Week offers much to celebrate, explains Fiona Aldridge, but the results of a national survey also provide a sober reminder of the ongoing need to make the classroom an attractive proposition

Adult Learners’ Week has two main highlights for me. Firstly, the compelling stories we hear from award winners about how learning has enabled them to transform their lives.

Secondly, the findings of our annual survey on adult participation in learning which show, at a national level, what proportion of adults take part in learning, alongside details of who participates and who doesn’t.

I am particularly excited about the inspirational stories of the three learners who have won our Learning for Work Awards (supported this year by the National Open College Network).

Many nominees we heard from had left full-time education with a sense that learning was ‘not for them’, not enjoyable and not relevant to their lives.

Having returned to learning as an adult however, they have experienced the success and benefits, both at work and in their wider lives, and are hungry for more.

Each one of these stories illustrates what the survey tells us year after year — that the majority of adults who are engaged in learning plan to continue in the future.

Most people with little or no experience of learning as an adult have no intention of taking part.

The 2013 survey shows that around two-fifths of adults have taken part in learning in the previous three years, while a similar proportion have not done any learning since leaving full-time education.

This level of engagement is not evenly spread across the adult population. Participation is determined by a range of factors — age, employment status, social class and prior learning.

While this year’s survey shows no change in the overall levels of participation and little change in the patterns of participation from last year, two particular sets of figures do stand out. Firstly, while it is generally true that older people are less likely to be learning, the 2013 survey shows a surprising and substantial fall in the proportion of young adults taking part (a fall of 9 percentage points among those aged 17 to 19 and 5 percentage points among 20 to 24-year-olds).

In a climate of high levels of youth unemployment, these figures are of considerable concern.

Research shows that for young adults who are not in education, employment or training the impact can be devastating and can continue well into their adult lives.

Secondly, while the survey shows a welcome increase in participation among part-time workers (from 42 per cent to 48 per cent) there is a worrying decline among unemployed adults (from 41 per cent to 35 per cent).

A greater appetite for learning among part-time workers might reflect, in part, the growing number of ‘underemployed’ adults who are looking to improve their skills to enable them to take on further part-time employment or move to full-time employment. If this is the case, then it is will be important to ensure that relevant learning opportunities are offered on a flexible basis in order that they are accessible to adults who may have other substantial commitments.

Much more challenging though is the decline in participation of unemployed adults (to the lowest level since the survey series began in 1996).

Given the vital role that learning and skills play in helping unemployed adults to gain and progress in work — as outlined in NIACE’s recent publication The Work Programme: What’s the role of skills —this is of particular concern.

As is often the case with large quantitative surveys, the data provides us with as many questions as answers. We will be undertaking further analysis of the data, which we will publish later on in the year. Meanwhile we can only hope that those who think learning is not for them will be inspired by this year’s award winners and take the step towards a brighter future.

Fiona Aldridge, head of learning for work, National Institute of Adult Continuing Education