THE number of adults in education has fallen to levels last seen under the Tories, despite the Government's crusade to widen participation post-19.
The trend of more adults enrolling on courses has been "sharply reversed", according to the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education.
Its report, A Sharp Reverse, has sparked concern among the Government's own advisers that further investment and legislation are required to create a culture of learning in British society.
The proportion of adults with current or recent experience of education increased from 40 per cent in 1996, the year before Labour came to power, to 46 per cent in 2001 but has since fallen to just 39 per cent, according to a UK-wide survey.
The report says: "The case for participation in adult learning has yet to be made for whole swathes of the population "Eighty-seven per cent of adults aged 65 and over, 83 per cent of retired adults and 75 per cent of adults in socio-economic classes D and E have not participated in learning in the last three years."
NIACE, which advises ministers on adult education, including learning for leisure, hopes its latest research will give fresh impetus to its call for protected funding for courses that are not seeking to improve vocational skills, literacy and numeracy.
Alan Tuckett, director of NIACE, says the skills strategy, due to be announced in June, must include a commitment to fund growth in courses which are aimed at students learning for leisure - particularly those over 65.
He said: "The Government does not have a proud record in education for older people."
He said the Learning and Skills Council, created in 2001, had made significant progress but increasing participation needs to go beyond the vocationally-driven goals it has been set by the Department for Education and Skills.
NIACE recommends 3 per cent of all post-19 spending should be dedicated to learning which falls outside the courses that are not current government priorities.
Mr Tuckett stressed this would be a modest commitment compared with Denmark, which allocates 6 per cent of its entire education budget for the same purpose.
NIACE believes the slide in participation may be due, in part, to recessionary factors which deter businesses from investing in work-based training.
It also argues that legislation is needed to force small and medium-sized businesses to train their staff, who account for an increasing proportion of the total workforce.
He said: "Small businesses don't train because we don't expect them to.
Even if you reimburse their costs they will think it is not for them. But is there any industry where people don't need to update skills?"
The survey, an annual snapshot of adults in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, looked at participation in all forms of structured learning, whether or not courses are government-recognised or publicly funded.
It involved interviews with a sample of 4,893 people over 17.
Further reports, 33,35