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Lessons for life

Every year, when we at Niace see the results of our participation survey, we tend to think about the meaning and context of learning for all sorts of people. If you spend most of your life among people for whom learning has been and remains a positive word, it is likely that your colleagues and friends did well in the education system. They have no reason to believe that learning is anything other than rewarding.

But to many people learning isn't a "good thing". This year, in our annual survey of more than 5,000 people, we found that three out of five have not participated in learning in the past three years. The figures are even higher for those outside the labour market, from lower socio-economic classes, who are older, unemployed or who left school at the earliest opportunity. There are undoubtedly practical and financial barriers for some. But we need to recognise that for many people, learning is not the universal good that others think it is. We also need to recognise that how people learn is changing and that they often don't regard it as learning.

When we start school, learning is something that is "done to us" and something everyone has to do. Those who had a bad experience can be reluctant to revisit their demons. Others may only get involved in learning when they have to at work. Yet more people see learning as a punishment - the bus driver who has to do remedial learning after an accident, for example. It isn't just workplaces where learning is perceived as a weakness. How many people have you met who gloat about passing their driving test first time? Learner drivers are some of the most ridiculed members of our society, especially those who retake the test many times.

And then there is the "I don't do learning anymore" group; those people who couldn't wait to leave school at the earliest opportunity so they would "never have to do homework or take exams again". However, perhaps they watch Brian Cox programmes or use Google to find things out. Discovering fascinating information about the world is something most people enjoy - but they would not necessarily consider it learning.

We need to rehabilitate the word and perhaps the concept of learning. People should not feel that something is lacking in their abilities to learn; they should see learning as aspirational. Adult Learners' Week is a great place to start.

During the week we were moved by stories of learners who have transformed their lives despite great challenges. Thousands of partner organisations ran "have a go" events to give people a taste of what good adult learning is like. If that doesn't help rehabilitate the word and the concept, I don't know what will.

David Hughes is chief executive of Niace. Adult Learners' Week ran from 12 to 18 May.

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