Adult participation in education has grown to its highest ever recorded level – but stark social class and geographical divides persist, according to a new survey.
Data shows that adults in lower socio-economic groups remain twice as likely to not have participated in learning since leaving full-time education compared to those in higher socio-economic groups and the gap has increased in the last year.
Learning and Work Institute (L&W) revealed the findings through its annual adult participation in learning survey for 2023, which was published today to mark the start of Lifelong Learning Week.
The report caveated the findings that the change in survey method from face-to-face to online means that comparisons to surveys pre-2021 should be treated with caution.
“However, survey results over the last three years appear to indicate a sustained interest in learning post-pandemic,” it said.
Here are the key findings:
Adult education participation a highest-ever level
The 2023 report found nearly half of all adults in the UK (49 per cent) have taken part in learning in the last three years, an all-time high.
That number has significantly increased since 2022, rising eight percentage points and the highest recorded since the survey began in 1996.
L&W points out that the survey deliberately adopts a broad definition of learning, including a “wide range of formal, non-formal and informal learning, far beyond the limits of publicly offered educational opportunities for adults”.
For example, learning can mean “practising, studying, or reading about something…It can also mean being taught, instructed or coached”.
Nearly three in ten adults (28 per cent) say they are currently learning, with a further one in five (21 per cent) saying they have done some learning within the last three years.
“The increase in adult participation in learning is good news, and the survey indicates that this is driven by adults being motivated to learn for leisure post-pandemic,” said Stephen Evans, chief executive of Learning and Work Institute.
Adults from lower social backgrounds less likely to access education
Despite the rise in overall learning participation rates, it is not evenly distributed across different social grades.
Three in five adults (60 per cent) in the AB social grade, who are in managerial and professional occupations are current or recent learners.
This is much higher than the 46 per cent in the C1 social grade (supervisory, administrative and junior managerial occupations), 55 per cent in the C2 grade (skilled manual occupations) and 38 per cent in the DE grade, who are semi-skilled, in unskilled manual occupations.
Adults in the DE socio-economic group remain twice as unlikely to have participated in learning since leaving full-time education compared to those in AB grade (35 per cent compared to 14 per cent).
Last year, the gap between the two social grades were respectively 37 per cent compared to 19 per cent respectively.
Geographical divides remain
A higher proportion of adults in England (51 per cent) say they are current or recent learners in 2023, an increase of nine percentage points on last year’s survey.
Only England has shown a substantial increase in participation rates since 2022 – a nine percentage point rise – an observation that was not evident in last year’s survey, the report said.
Among English regions, London continues to have the highest participation rate at 64 per cent, explained in part because of its younger and more highly qualified population. There remains a 22-percentage point gap between London and the lowest-performing region (the North East), the same as last year.
Age gaps in adult participation closing
Compared to 2022, there has been a sizeable increase in participation for adults aged 35-44 (16 percentage points) and a 10-percentage point increase in adults aged 55 to 64.
The report said there has been a “welcome decline” in the gaps in participation in learning between the oldest and youngest age groups and suggests that older learners are utilising online learning opportunities.
“It’s good to see some narrowing in inequalities in learning, particularly by age. But the gaps remain stark and persistent and if anything, geographical differences have widened,” Evans added. “This is where Government policy needs to step in to help level up opportunity so everyone can access learning.”
“The Government and employers need to reverse their reductions in investment in learning to tap into this interest and ensure people’s opportunities to learn aren’t capped and cut off.”
Two-thirds of learners record at least one barrier to learning
The survey found a “statistically significant increase” of current or recent learners (68 per cent) reporting at least one challenge while learning compared to 2022 (65 per cent).
Data also shows an increase of learners recording challenges to their learning but authors pointed out that the pattern of reported challenges has seen little variation compared to previous surveys.
Learners are most likely to identify work and time pressures (24 per cent), the cost of learning (16 per cent), lacking confidence to learn (13 per cent), being put off by tests and exams (12 per cent) or feeling too old (12 per cent).