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Privileged winners of adult learning

Those in most need of basic skills prove hardest to reach, says survey. Steve Hook reports

ADULT learning participation is showing its biggest increase in 20 years - but only among the privileged who are already well-educated and in employment The proportion of adults taking part in some form of organised studying has increased from 22 per cent in 2000 to 29 per cent this year, according to the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education.

The survey involved a sample of 6,310 people over the age of 17 in Britain. There remain some "significant winners and losers" within these figures, says Alan Tuckett, director of NIACE.

"The distribution of the expansion of opportunity is heavily weighed to the educationally privileged, the young, and to people with jobs. Working status has a significant impact on participation. Among the sharpest increases over the lifetime of this Government has been the increase in part-time workers' participation. Equally striking has been the way retired people have been scarcely affected by the expansion of opportunity."

There are also some clear regional variations, with participation rates increasing sharply since 1996 in the South-east and North-west, but declining in the East Midlands and Yorkshire and Humberside.

In the West Midlands, public provision expanded sharply, but this was offset by the fact that some of the companies with the best record of work-based learning, such as Rover and Lucas, shed thusands of jobs.

The survey shows that people who have done no learning since school have little or no intention of returning to studying, suggesting those in most need of acquiring basic skills are proving to be the hardest to reach.

It shows that 33 per cent of people said they had done no learning since school - and 86 per cent of these said they were unlikely to start.

"The survey suggests that, for the hardest to reach, the case for a learning society has still to be made," said Mr Tuckett . "I trust the policy-makers will continue to look carefully at participation data to identify who is not yet reached, and tweak policies to ensure they get a fair chance."

Men still take the lion's share of the opportunities, with one in three of them in learning, compared with one in four women, the survey says.

Chris Humphries, the new director general of City and Guilds, which awards a million qualifications a year, says the Government needs to re-think the balance between academic and vocational training. He says fully-funded vocational learning needs to be available up to the age of 25, instead of 19 as at present.

He has called for a minister for vocational learning. "Vocational education has for too long been treated as a poor relation to academic education, and there is now a vital need for a minister," he said.

The survey was carried out for Adult Learners Week on behalf of NIACE by Research Surveys of Great Britain.

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