The number of adults taking part in learning has risen for the first time in five years, according to a report published today.
The annual Adult Participation in Learning Survey, carried out by adult education body Niace, reveals that 41 per cent of adults have taken part in some form of learning in the past three years, up from 38 per cent in 2014.
The increase seems to have been driven by a rise in participation among the top two socio-economic classes - 54 per cent of ABs and 52 per cent of C1s said they had taken part in learning in the past three years, compared with 47 per cent and 48 per cent in last year's survey, respectively.
However, Niace's figures show that fewer unemployed people are taking part in learning.
Some 5,000 respondents were questioned for the survey, which is released on the eve of Adult Learners' Week. Its findings come as fears grow about the future of adult provision.
Last week, chancellor George Osborne announced that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) would have to make cuts of pound;450 million in 2015-16. A spokeswoman for the department said that although apprenticeships would be protected as a "priority" area, it would be working with the Skills Funding Agency to decide where savings could be made.
Niace's survey suggests that growing numbers of out-of-work people are being squeezed out of education. Last year, 32 per cent of unemployed adults said they had not taken part in learning since leaving full-time education. This year, that has increased to 41 per cent.
David Hughes, Niace's chief executive, welcomed the "modest" overall increase in participation, which he said showed a growing confidence by employers to invest in their workforces. However, he added that radical changes were needed for the trend to continue.
"If we want a much more productive nation, we don't have the skills and employment system to achieve that," he said. "We have failed to overcome the inequalities in access to learning over the past 20 years. We now have people who have left school at 16 who are incredibly unlikely to engage in learning.
"If we are to have a skilled workforce and compete internationally, we need to do something about it. A demand-led system will continue to deliver for those who realise the benefit of learning at the expense of those who need support.
"I suspect it will stay like that unless we do something radically different."
More support needed
Mr Hughes said that although adults in the top socio-economic groups benefited from increased employer investment in learning and could also afford to invest in it themselves, unemployed people needed more support.
"Programmes for the unemployed are still focused on pushing people into a job," he said. "There is not enough support with skills development to make it sustainable. The government has a responsibility, along with employers and other parts of society, to stimulate demand for learning and address inequality. We can't just have a demand-led system, because that will gravitate to people who have already done well. Let's focus scarce public resources on quality of access."
Stewart Segal, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP), said the increase was encouraging. "It's true that employers are looking at their existing workforces and, seeing skills shortages, retraining people," he said. "The rise also supports the fact that apprenticeships are an all-age programme."
Mr Segal said that to get more adults involved in learning, AELP would like to see restrictions lifted on who could access and deliver the government's traineeships programme, which is designed to help young people into apprenticeships or employment.
A spokesman for BIS said it would not comment on the findings of the Niace survey as the government had its own official statistics covering these areas.
The most recent of these figures, released last month, show that 73.5 per cent of people aged 16-64 were in work from January to March 2015, up from 72.5 per cent in the same period a year earlier.
The proportion of 16- to 24-year-olds classed as Neet - not in education, employment or training - fell by 0.7 percentage points between 2014 and 2015, to 12.3 per cent.
`I love what I do'
To mark Adult Learners' Week 2015, individual success stories in the sector will be recognised at Niace's national awards ceremony on Monday.
One of them will be Robyn Mills-Sims from Barnstaple, who has received a South West regional tutor award for helping disengaged young people.
Ms Mills-Sims joined Petroc College in Devon more than six years ago as an 18-year-old volunteer. Since then, she has achieved a degree in psychology and developed her teaching skills. She is now a full-time teacher and leads the Prince's Trust programme at the college.
Today, Ms Mills-Sims helps young people aged 16-24 overcome barriers to learning or employment.
"Teaching has become a huge part of my life," she says. "I love what I do and sharing my experiences and knowledge with my students."
For more on the awards and Adult Learners' Week 2015, see www.alw.org.uk