Armed with the results of the annual learning participation survey, David Hughes takes aim at the number of adults taking up learning opportunities and calls for action to make the classroom a more attractive place.

Celebration, excitement, inspiration, exploration and fun encapsulate Adult Learners’ Week for me and thousands of other people who have a go at learning as well as joining in the awards ceremonies up and down the country.

It’s an annual shot in the arm for everyone involved in learning, providing a boost and reminding us all just how important lifelong learning is for the spirit, for communities, for families and for businesses.

This year, though, I think we need to be worried about the future because the learning and employment systems are broken for millions of people. We need major reforms to change that. Our research shows that millions of people are missing out on learning which will help them get on, help businesses and strengthen the economy and society.

The Niace annual learning participation survey provides the clear evidence that more needs to be done to stimulate demand for learning.

According to the survey, only two in every five (41 per cent) UK adults have taken part in learning in the last three years, but this is uneven when looked at for different groups. For instance, more than half of those in the higher socio-economic classes (54 per cent of ABs; 52 per cent of C1s) have taken part in learning during the previous three years, compared with just 35 per cent of skilled manual workers (C2s) and only 26 per cent of unskilled workers and people on limited incomes (DEs).

We’re failing to develop the lifelong learning society that’s essential if we are to compete with other nations.

Twice as many people who left full-time education aged 21+ participate in adult education, compared to those who left full-time education at 16. And nearly two-thirds (62 per cent) of adults without regular access to the internet have not taken part in learning since leaving full time education.

We’re failing to develop the lifelong learning society that’s essential if we are to compete with other nations

Despite our ageing society, we are failing older people, with those 55 and over the least likely to take part in any form of learning. And we are failing to support unemployed people to gain the skills they need to find decent work.

Through our research and development work we know it does not have to be like this. People who have not participated in learning since leaving school can be motivated into learning.

The pilots for our Citizens’ Curriculum have shown that people can be motivated when they are involved in designing their learning. The pilots also show that once engaged, people do progress rapidly in confidence, further learning and into work.

Part of the challenge is to persuade and encourage people to have the confidence that learning will benefit them and that they have the ability to learn. But we also know that even where people do want to learn, the opportunities do not exist or are simply not accessible.

If this government truly wants to raise the productive potential of the nation, then we need to foster a universal culture of lifelong learning. That will require a different approach and bold actions from the government as well as from others; we are ready to support them in that.

We’ve looked closely at the Conservative Party’s manifesto commitments, and our Summer Budget submission, Raising the Productive Potential of the Economy, proposes urgent short-term measures which will help move towards a more inclusive, productive economy. These include: protected funding for English, maths, traineeships and ESOL which should be delivered through the Citizens Curriculum; a Careers Advancement Service aimed at the 5.2m people in low paid work; and new employment programmes for disabled people on benefits.

The benefits of lifelong learning are wide, deep and long-lasting. But unless we make major reforms, those benefits will increasingly be the domain of the privileged few. I think it is worth us fighting for those who missed out at school.