The gap between those who had a good start in education and school drop-outs may be widening, reports Sue Jones
PARTICIPATION in adult education has remained static over the past three years, despite strenuous government efforts to increase lifelong learning.
Class, educational and employment experience and gender still influence take-up of courses, and the gap between the well-
and poorly-educated may be widening, says a survey just published by NIACE, the national organisation for adult learning.
The study, commissioned from Research Surveys of Great Britain with Ulster Marketing Surveys, shows little change since 1996 and "confirms that the UK still faces an enormous task in involving all its people in the learning society".
Class strongly influences attitudes to learning. Two out of five adults are currently in education or have followed a course within the past three years. But 58 per cent of them are from upper and middle socio-economic groups while only 25 per cent are from the working class. Participation by white-collar workers and skilled working-class people has held steady since 1990, at 32 per cent and 17 per cent respectively.
People who go into further or higher education are more likely to return to learning later. Of those who left school at 16, only a quarter are current or recent learners, compared with half of those who stayed on after 16 and three-fifths of those who continued after 20.
The workplace provides the motive, resources and opportunity for many people to continue learning and gain qualifications. Work-related courses dominate the list of subjects, with computer studies the most popular at 25 per cent. Nursing and health studies have increased to 10 per cent but business management has declined to 10 per cent
The groups most likely to miss out on learning were ethnic minority and part-time employees.
Although almost as many women as men have been involved in current and recent learning, women are reporting more difficulties in finishing courses. More women than men have to pay their own fees (35 per cent compared with 26 per cent) while more men have their fees paid by their employer (19 per cent compared with 13 per cent for women). Full-time workers are twice as likely as part-time workers to have their learning fully or partly supported by their employer. Thirty seven per cent of women with children under four cited care of children and dependents as a barrier to learning, and more women than men reported difficulties with travel costs.
Encouragingly, more than nine in 10 of the survey's respondents say "learning is something people do throughout their lives", and nearly three-quarters are confident about learning new skills but NIACE worries that fewer people now agree that learning improves pay and promotion prospects.
NIACE believes that there is still a long way to go. Information and communication technology is crucial, but access to computers is heavily slanted to the young, the better-off and the employed.
More than half of adults say that they are not likely to take up courses in the future - an increase of 4 per cent since 1996. Perhaps most worrying for Education Secretary David Blunkett is the finding that for adults of working age, roughly half of part-timers and unemployed people have no plans to get back into learning.
The Sign Up Now campaign for adult learning runs from September 4-10.
"The Learning Divide Revisited" is published by NIACE, 21 De Montfort St, Leicester LE1 7GE. More details on www.tesfefocus.co.uk