The first-ever gains for participation in lifelong learning among the lowest skilled workers have been wiped out as companies axe training schemes, according to adult education body Niace.
In its annual survey of participation in adult education, published to mark the start of Adult Learners' Week tomorrow, Niace found that the least skilled and the unemployed were less likely to be taking part in learning than at any time in the past 20 years. Just 23 per cent of low- skilled workers have been involved in any form.
This represents a sharp fall from last year's peak of 30 per cent, which represented the first rise in participation since the survey began 20 years ago.
Because the survey asks adults if they have been in learning in the past three years, this year's survey is the first to show the full impact of the recession.
Niace blamed companies making cuts to workplace training and called on the Government to use its leverage to encourage industry to invest in education, through mechanisms such as "licence to practise" which sets training requirements for named occupations.
It said that Government support was disproportionately focused on under- 25s, but that the country's skills needs required that more was done for older workers as well. While participation increased among 17 to 24-year- olds, it fell among every other group, with an overall decline in adult learning from 43 per cent participation last year to 39 per cent.
Alan Tuckett, chief executive of Niace, said: "When we talk about education and training, we're almost always thinking about the public sector. But a report from the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development showed that four out of 10 businesses weren't training. It means, for a lot of low-waged workers, the opportunities have gone and the aspirations have gone with them.
"If Britain wants to learn its way out of its economic difficulties, we've got to have a skilled labour force and not have all our learning directed towards young people.
"With an ageing labour force, we need to encourage people to prolong their active working and learning lives. Reducing learning opportunities will hardly help with the well-being or work-readiness of Britain's third-age adults. You can have a regulatory structure where it is normal in the workplace to be training people."
Mr Tuckett said the decision to replace Train to Gain with investment in apprenticeships was also likely to have contributed to the decline in participation, since apprenticeships are more costly and reach fewer people. But he said Train to Gain had conditioned employers to expect the state to pay for training, which was unsustainable.
The previous Government had delayed a decision until 2015 on whether employers were making enough progress towards meeting Lord Leitch's targets for improvements in skills.
A Department for Business, Innovation and Skills spokeswoman said the Government had no plans to introduce licence to practise requirements across the economy, but that it was encouraging industry-led schemes rather than imposing a "top-down" approach.