'Adult learning is addictive, but easy to avoid'

Once you’ve got the learning bug, you're likely to carry on learning. But too few people get it, writes Stephen Evans

Stephen Evans

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Ask most people whether more lifelong learning is a good thing, and they’re likely to agree. There’s lots of cut through in the messages that longer life expectancy and a changing economy mean that you’ll need to learn through your life.

There is also increasing recognition that learning is good for a range of other reasons, including civic engagement and health and wellbeing. These are arguments that the Learning and Work Institute has always made, most recently in calling for learning to be at the heart of the next 70 years of the NHS.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that policy and funding has yet to catch up – the sharp cuts to funding for adult learning and longstanding skewing of funding toward young people have taken their toll. The number of adults taking part in publicly funded learning has fallen by one million over the last decade. Learning and Work Institute data, reported on by Tes, shows the proportion of adults reporting taking part of recently taking part in a wider definition of learning is at its lowest level in the 20 years since we started collecting the data.

It is essential that next year’s spending review invests in learning for adults, and in wider local authority services and civic society that have long helped engage adults in learning.

Why don’t more adults learn?

Our survey shows a range of reasons adults say they have not taken part in learning. These include the cost, childcare, and not knowing what’s on offer. But the most often-cited reason is not being interested or seeing how learning is relevant to them. This is an industrial-scale engagement challenge.

We’ve spoken with adults to find out what would inspire them to learn. Facts and figures on the impact of learning rated far less highly than seeing ‘people like me’ taking part in learning. This is a combination of role models and making learning the social norm for society. Our survey, looking at adults’ participation in learning, shows that once you’ve got the learning bug, you are far more likely to carry on learning. But too few people get it.

In other words, learning is addictive, but easy to avoid.

Festival of Learning

The Festival of Learning has been celebrating the best in adult learning for more than 25 years, handing out around 2,000 awards. It’s a great way to ensure learners get the recognition they deserve, and to build a network of role models and ambassadors for adult learning.

Each year it’s a privilege to read through hundreds of inspirational nominations and meet our amazing winners. Their stories tell of the range of impacts learning can have for adults.

Take, for example, our 2018 learning for health award winner Frank McCann. Previously a professional photographer, a brain injury after a heart attack left him unable to speak or move. He enrolled in English and maths courses at Coventry Adult Education Service to regain confidence and skills. He’s gone on to do a range of arts classes, including relearning his photography skills. He’s exhibited his photographs and hopes to become a professional photographer again.

Or look at Equal Voices, our 2018 president’s award winner. This East London project supports women with English for speakers of other languages (Esol) needs with learning and peer support. It encourages them to be active in the community, for example using their language skills to prepare questions for local mayoral candidates.

Get recognised

The Festival of Learning brings together so many amazing stories of how learning can change lives, whether for work, a career change, health and wellbeing, to make new friends, or just because. It’s a great way to celebrate the power of adult learning, inspire more adults to learn and make the case for public investment.

Nominations for our 2019 awards, covering learners, tutors, projects and employers, are open now. Please nominate to celebrate the best in adult learning and inspire more adults to learn.

Stephen Evans is chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute


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