The coronavirus pandemic may have increased the value adults place on learning, for work and their wider lives, writes Emily Jones

This week is Lifelong Learning Week, a chance to celebrate the difference that learning can make to people’s lives. And there may have never been a more important time for adults to engage in learning.

Faced with unprecedented economic and technological change, many adults will need to upskill or retrain to find new work; others will need to develop their skills and adapt to new ways of working within existing roles. But learning is about much more than just work. Evidence on the wider benefits of learning is clear: adult learning has an important role to play in supporting health and wellbeing, in addressing inequalities and ‘levelling up’, and in connecting people and tackling social isolation.

Every year, Learning and Work Institute runs the Adult Participation in Learning Survey, providing a unique and rich evidence base on patterns and trends in adult learning across the UK. The survey adopts a broad definition of learning, that’s not limited to courses, but includes learning at home or at work. 5,000 adults – who are representative of the population as a whole – are asked whether they are currently learning or have done so in the last three years.

This year, the pandemic has had a huge impact on our lives. Following the government’s lockdown in March, many millions of people worked from home or were furloughed, and parents home-schooled their children. Adult learning providers suspended in-person teaching, and where possible, learning was delivered online instead. We therefore wanted to use the 2020 survey to understand whether people used this time at home for learning, and explore the motivations for and barriers to learning.

Many adults (43 per cent) embraced this opportunity to learn through lockdown. This probably reflects reduced barriers to learning associated with time pressures and the convenience of online learning. But the pandemic may have also increased the value adults place on learning, for work and their wider lives. Could this be an indication that lockdown learning may lead to longer-term shifts?

The survey does however highlight stark inequalities in who engaged with learning during lockdown. Younger adults, full-time workers, those in higher socio-economic grades and those who stayed on in initial education until an older age were all more likely to be learning. Among full time employees, those who continued to work during lockdown were more likely to learn than those who were furloughed.

These deep inequalities in participation in learning are of serious cause for concern given the unequal impact of the pandemic on the labour market. We know that workers with fewer qualifications and those in lower skilled or lower paid roles were more likely to have been furloughed or to have lost their jobs. Despite facing a greater need to upskill and retrain to find work in the post-covid economy, these workers are least likely to be accessing learning opportunities.

The government has recently announced a ‘lifelong learning guarantee’ to support people to retrain and upskill, including an entitlement for adults to their first level 3 qualification. While the survey suggests that many adults are ready to engage in learning, it also emphasises the need to ensure these opportunities are targeted at those who are most likely to need to retrain and upskill – but who currently are least likely to take part. Doing so will be vital if we are to ensure that nobody is left behind in the post-covid economy.

We also know that learning is addictive; once adults start learning, they are more likely to continue. Indeed two in three of those who took part in online learning said they were very likely to continue doing so in the future. As we return to ‘normal’, we need to make sure that adults who had a go at the learning during lockdown are supported to continue, helping them to secure rewarding and fulfilling work, and maintain their health and wellbeing.