Number of adult learners hits record low

Just one in three adults has taken part in learning in the past three years, Learning and Work Institute reveals

Kate Parker

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The number of adults taking part in learning and training has fallen to a record low, according to a new survey. 

Research by the Learning and Work Institute shows that just one in three (35 per cent) of adults has taken part in learning in the past three years, down from 37 per cent in 2017. This is the lowest number on record – with participation as low as 29 per cent in the South West and 30 per cent in Yorkshire and the Humber. 

The survey questioned 5,000 adults across the UK and identified stark inequalities in access to learning around the country – particularly with adults who could benefit the most from returning to education. 

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The research shows that 48 per cent of adults graded higher in terms of their socioeconomic standing have taken part in learning in the past three years, compared with 20 per cent of adults in graded lower –  this participation gap has widened by 3 percentage points in the past year.

'Lack of funding' for adult education

According to the research, 40 per cent of full-time employees participated in learning in the past three years – compared with just 17 per cent of people who were out of work or not seeking employment. 

The survey also showed that just 18 per cent of adults who left education at 16 or under had taken part in learning in the past three years, compared with 45 per cent of those who left education at 21 or older. And older adults are far less likely to take part in learning – with each additional year of age, the likelihood of an individual taking part in learning falls by 1.3 per cent. 

Stephen Evans, Learning and Work Institute’s chief executive, said that the survey should serve as a wake-up call, encouraging efforts to make lifelong learning accessible for all and to increase investment in adult education. 

“Participation in lifelong learning has huge benefits for individuals and communities; for employers and the wider economy. If we are to adapt to transformative changes in the world of work, we need a real focus on adult skills, with opportunities to upskill and retrain throughout our careers,” he said. 

He also warned that without action, the UK is at risk of falling behind other countries post-Brexit.

Learning and Work Institute analysis from March showed that progress in improving the skills and qualification levels of the workforce has stalled, and that the UK is in danger of falling behind in skills post-Brexit. By 2030 – out of 17 countries taking part in the international PIAAC survey – the UK is on course to fall from 10th to 14th for basic literacy, and from 11th to 14th for basic numeracy. 

Angela Rayner, Labour’s shadow education secretary, said: “The Tories have slashed funding for adult education and introduced loans that have caused the number of learners to plummet to a record low. Despite all of their rhetoric, the government did not offer a penny to adult education in the spending round.

“Labour will invest in lifelong learning as part of our plans for a National Education Service, ensuring that access to education is a right for the many, and not a privilege for the few.”


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Kate Parker

Kate Parker is a schools and colleges content producer.

Find me on Twitter @KateParkerTes

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