Adult learning 'real cause for concern' as participation hits record low

Adult participation in education has fallen to record low with almost four million ‘lost learners’ since 2010, according to new data from the Learning and Work Institute.

The policy, research and development organisation urged the government to put lifelong learning “at the heart of its domestic agenda” after just one in three adults were found to have taken part in learning in the last three years.

It called for a national mission to be set up to reverse the decline, “backed up by sustained additional investment, and a cross-government strategy”.

The 2019 survey by the Learning and Work Institute showed that adult participation has fallen 10 percentage points since 2010, from 43 per cent down to 33 per cent – the lowest figure on record.

It is equivalent to 3.8 million fewer adults taking part in learning since the start of the decade.

The proportion declined from 35 per cent in 2018, 37 per cent in 2017 and 41 per cent in the previous survey in 2015.

Adult learning is heading in the wrong direction

Learning and Work Institute has been tracking the number of adults taking part in education or training in the UK since 1996.

Stephen Evans, chief executive of Learning and Work Institute, said the figures “should be a real cause for concern”.

“With our economy set to undergo transformational change in the coming years, lifelong learning has never been more important.”

The fall in participation followed a significant decline in investment over the last decade.

Between 2009-10 and 2018-19, government spending on adult education excluding apprenticeships decreased by 47 per cent, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

After winning a majority in the general election on December 12, prime minister Boris Johnson has a new FE promises to fulfil.

The Conservative manifesto said the party would launch a £600 million a year “new National Skills Fund” towards creating a “right to retrain” if they formed the government, amounting to £3 billion over the Parliament.

Adult education had been snubbed in the Chancellor’s Spending Review, which handed £400 million to students aged 16 to 19 but nothing for older learners.

Former chair of the education select committee, Robert Halfon MP, called adult learning “one of the most important challenges facing our nation”.

He said: “We need to do more, looking again at personal learning accounts or social credits to those undertaking adult learning, as well as tax credits for businesses who retrain their workers.

“We must also ensure that we have Adult Community Learning Centre in every town in the country.”

The survey also found inequalities in access to learning.

Adults in lower socio-economic groups (DE) were almost half as likely to take part in learning at 21 per cent, than those in higher socio-economic groups (AB) at 41 per cent.

In addition, only 18 per cent of adults who left school at 16 or younger took part in learning compared to 40 per cent of those who stayed on in full time education until at least 21.

The 2019 survey included 5,244 adults aged 17 and over across the UK, with fieldwork conducted in September 2019.

Learning and Work Institute claimed increasing the number of adults accessing education and training will provide economic benefits by being “vital both to boosting productivity and to supporting adults to adapt to rapid economic change”.

Commenting on the findings, Matthew Fell, CBI Chief UK Policy Director, said: “Adult learning is heading in the wrong direction at precisely the wrong time for our economy and our society. “Technology is rapidly changing the world of work and driving up demand for new and higher skills.”

He claimed nine in ten workers will need some form of reskilling by 2030, and as a result, “we need the partnership of the century between individuals, business and government to ensure that everyone can benefit from the opportunities created by new technologies”.

“Lifelong learning will be one of the defining issues of our age – countries who get it right will have an exceptional competitive advantage,” Fell added.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “This government is investing in Britain’s people to level up skills across the country. The National Skills Fund will invest an extra £600 million a year to help people learn new skills so they can return to work or further their careers.

“The National Retraining Scheme is supporting adults whose jobs are evolving through the use of AI or automation so they can retrain and open up the path to a new and exciting future.”

She added: “Our investment in adult education has supported over a million people in 2018/19 to progress into work, further study, or an apprenticeship.

“This includes fully funded courses in English and maths, for adults who need to improve their literacy and numeracy. From 2020 we will also provide full funding for adult basic digital skills courses so more people can develop these essential skills to get ahead in work and in life.”