The Government has a long way to go in achieving its goal of a lifelong learning society, new research shows.
There has been no overall change in the numbers of people learning since 1996, according to a study published this week by NIACE, the national organisation for adult learning.
"Measures being put into place by the Government to widen participation and address barriers to learning throughout life have not yet had time to impact on overall participation," says the report. "There are encouraging signs, but for older people in particular, urgent action is needed to reverse a decline in participation."
The figures showed a 20 per cent fall in participation by retired people over the past three years, from 12 per cent to 9 per cent among current learners. But part-time workers learning now are up from 19 per cent to 29 per cent. Computer studies is the main subject for almost one in four adults. Over-75s tend to choose languages. There has been a small drop in 17-19 participation, which may be due to these young people starting jobs.
Social class, age and the length of initial education continue to show a powerful influence on adults' participation. "The more you get, the more you want: 76 per cent of current learners say they are likely to take up learning again, but 87 per cent (81 per cent in 1996) of people who say they have done no learning since school are unlikely to do so in the future," according to the survey.
The age at which people leave school has a dramatic impact on future learning: those who stay on are twice as likely to want to return to learning in later life. More than 5,000 people over the age of 17 were interviewed for the survey, commissioned to coincide with Adult Learners' Week.
Wales is now the leading site of learning in the UK, with 28 per cent learning against a national figure of 22 per cent.
Scotland has seen a drop from 21 per cent to 18 per cent among current learners. Participation has increased in Northern Ireland, but fewer people have taken part in the past three years than anywhere else in the UK.
Almost one in four is currently learning, and two in five have been learning in the past three years. The major barriers are pressures of work and adults' belief that they are too old or ill to benefit.
Marking Time: The NIACE Survey on Adult Participation in Learning, 1999.Tel: 0116 255 1451. pound;5. ISBN I 86201 072 2.