Regional and social class divides in adult learning put ‘levelling up’ plans at risk, LWI warns

Gap widens for adult learning between highest and lowest performing regions in the UK

Gap widens for adult learning between highest and lowest performing regions in the UK

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The gap between the highest and lowest performing regions in England when it comes to adult education participation is continuing to widen – putting the government’s levelling up plans at risk, according to new research.

And on top of this, the data shows stark social class divides persist as adults in lower socio-economic groups are twice as likely to not have participated in learning since leaving full-time education than those in higher socio-economic groups.

The Learning and Work Institute revealed the findings through its annual adult participation in learning survey for 2022, which was published today to mark the start of Lifelong Learning Week.

Here are the key findings:

Slight fall in overall participation in learning

The 2022 survey shows that just over two fifths (42 per cent) of adults are currently learning or have done so in the last three years – a slightly lower participation rate than 2021 (-3 percentage points).

However, this overall participation rate is in line with the rates seen in the early 2000s after recent years of much lower participation. Just 33 per cent of adults were in learning in 2019.

LWI researchers said the change in survey method from face-to-face to online means that comparisons to surveys pre-2021 should be treated with caution. But, they added, this finding may “indicate a sustained interest in learning post-pandemic”.

Disadvantaged adults twice as likely to not participate in education

When looking at the social divide, today’s report states that almost half (49 per cent) of adults in the AB social grade are current or recent learners, compared to 38 per cent of those in the C1, 44 per cent in the C2, and 35 per cent in the DE social grades.

Almost twice as many adults in the DE grade have not participated in learning since leaving full-time education when compared to those in the AB grade (37 per cent compared to 19 per cent).

This “class penalty” in learning has persisted since the survey started and shown little sign of narrowing, according to the researchers.

Gap widens between highest and lowest performing regions

This year’s survey shows that the gap between the highest and lowest performing geographical regions has widened.

London has by far the highest rate of adult participation in learning at 56 per cent, compared to 35 per cent in south west England – a 21 percentage point difference compared to a 17 percentage point difference in 2019.

In comparison to last year, participation in learning has increased in Wales and Northern Ireland but has declined in England and Scotland.

The survey shows that 42 per cent of adults in England participate in learning compared to 39 per cent of adults in Scotland and 43 per cent in Northern Ireland and 42 per cent in Wales.

BAME adults more likely to participate in education

As in previous years, the survey findings indicate that respondents from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds are more likely to take part in learning than those from white backgrounds (66 per cent compared to 38 percent).

The survey also found that men from BAME backgrounds are more likely to be participating in learning than women from BAME backgrounds.

This didn’t change significantly within social grades, compared to white respondents whose pattern of participation declines by social grade.

The survey indicates this may suggest that social class is more likely to be an indicator of participation among white adults, “although this should be treated with caution due to lower numbers of BAME respondents and that the use of a ‘BAME’ category can mask differences between individual ethnic groups”.

The key barriers to learning for adults

Seven in ten respondents (70 per cent) said they faced barriers which prevented them from accessing learning in the past three years. Of these, the most common barriers were cost and affordability as well as feeling too old.

Other barriers included work or time pressures, being put off by tests or exams and lack of confidence. Although three in ten adults said nothing had prevented them from accessing learning and that they didn’t want to.

Nearly two thirds (65 per cent) of current or recent learners indicated that they have encountered at least one challenge while learning. Work and time pressure were cited as the most likely challenge, with confidence, cost and exams listed after this, which are the same as the 2021 survey results.

Levelling up plans at risk, says LWI chief

Stephen Evans, chief executive of Learning and Work Institute, said: “The stark inequalities in access highlighted by our survey mean that those who could benefit most from learning are least likely to participate. The gap between the highest and lowest performing regions is, if anything, widening, so we need practical action to level up, not down.

“Ahead of the government’s medium term fiscal plan, this survey makes the case for increased investment in lifelong learning to boost economic growth and social justice. We also need local government, civic society, employers and others to help build a culture of lifelong learning. Lifelong Learning Week offers a chance for us all to do that.”

A DfE spokesperson said: “We want everyone to have the opportunity to gain the skills they need to succeed, whatever their age, background, qualifications, or employment status.

“That’s why we’ve made £2.7 billion available by 2025 to support businesses to create more apprenticeships, in addition to investing over £150 million in the last year to expand our Skills Bootcamps and Free Courses for Jobs training schemes, which thousands of individuals have already taken advantage of.”

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  1. From ONS: “Social Grade is the socio-economic classification used by the Market Research and Marketing Industries, most often in the analysis of spending habits and consumer attitudes. Although it is not possible to allocate Social Grade precisely from information collected by the 2011 Census, the Market Research Society has developed a method for using Census information to provide a good approximation of Social Grade.”

    As far as I know, social grades have not been updated yet using 2021 census data, so some of the basis for this report appears to be algorithm designed by the marketing industry using approximations and based on the census 2011.

    The system categorises a household’s social grade based on the occupation of the chief earner. That’s very old data, with a bunch of opinions entrenched within it. To heap more opinion on top is arguably sorcery!