ADULTS WHO return to education take an average of 14 years to get their first basic GCSE-equivalent qualification.
Research for the Learning and Skills Council showed that most people found the task so daunting that only three in 100 without a school-leaving qualification would have a go.
Carole Stott, former chief executive of the National Open College Network, who was commissioned to do the research, blamed a succession of failures in government policy and an "inflexible" exam system for putting people off.
Ms Stott found evidence of failure in every part of the system. Advice from experts was often misleading and inconsistent, partnerships to promote and manage adult education were not working, and there was insufficient flexibility in the exam structure and the curriculum on offer.
While the Government was boasting about ever increasing numbers signing up for courses that would get adults back to work, her research suggests it is not hitting areas of greatest need and social and economic deprivation.
"So, for those of us who think that adult learning as it stands needs protecting, there is a stark message," she said. "As it stands, the system does not deliver either way. Few adults without a qualification participate at all and a tiny proportion progress, however you measure progression."
Ms Stott criticised Government supporters and traditionalists when she revealed her findings at a series of seminars on the public value of adult learning, organised by Niace, the national organisation for adult education.
She took to task both "soft liberals who would spend money willy-nilly on pink useless fluffy stuff, or from the target-driven suits who would reduce all adult achievement to any old level 2 NVQ".
Flaws in adult education highlighted by her work were not present in just one part of the system, she said. "They are almost universal, often inter-related and not just down to the colleges and other providers.
"They are inherent in a system heavily driven by qualifications which are rarely fit for purpose for those without them."
Bill Rammell, the minister for FE, has introduced a series of free and subsidised programmes in recent months for people without qualifications.
They range from basic literacy and numeracy, the Foundation Learning Tier, First Steps learning and an entitlement for all adults to study to level 2.
But Ms Stott argued that none of these would succeed in the long term without a fundamental reform of exams and the curriculum. Adults needed more "personalised" learning, adapted to their needs and drives. The ways in which people were allowed to study had to be more flexible and adults had to have more time to complete exams and to qualify in short stages she said.
Many of the recommentations from the research issues are being adopted by the LSC. From 2010, all adults without a level 2 qualification will be entitled to more personalised learning with short units of study building towards a credit-based qualification.