Rise in poor's demand for adult education: 'first in 20 years'

14th May 2010 at 01:00
Niace poll finds six percentage-point learning leap in the lowest social class despite sector cuts

Demand for adult education has risen among the poor and unemployed for the first time in 20 years, according to Niace's annual survey.

The adult education body's poll, commissioned for Adult Learners' Week, which starts tomorrow, found that the lowest social class saw a six percentage-point jump in the numbers who had recent involvement in learning, to 30 per cent.

This rise, matched by an increase in overall participation after it fell to the lowest levels in a decade last year, comes despite cuts to many adult education courses in recent years.

It may reflect the success of Train to Gain in reaching low-paid workers, as well as the recession convincing people that they need improved skills to compete in a tough job market.

But Alan Tuckett, chief executive of Niace, warned that the pound;340 million cuts being implemented for September jeopardised this success, because the poorest adults were most likely to rely on publicly funded education and were least able to arrange for alternatives such as online study.

"There is no doubt the recession has had an impact on people's current participation," said Mr Tuckett. "The biggest story is the shift in participation among the `DE' social class: a 6 per cent rise, when we have never seen more than a 1 per cent change in 20 years."

A cultural shift had taken place over the last decade and now all sections of society showed that they believed in the importance of continuing education into adulthood, Mr Tuckett said.

But the newest converts to learning are typically the most vulnerable to cuts. "Our worry has always been that this would reinforce the marginalisation of the marginalised," he said. "What's exciting about this survey is that the biggest leaps are with people who have had the least benefit in the past.

"Maintaining that is the challenge for public policy. If you're a confident learner, you can organise a group with other people. But people who are the least confident in learning are reliant on public provision."

The Niace poll, of nearly 5,000 adults across the UK, showed that larger numbers intend to take up learning in the future: 60 per cent of full-time workers and 67 per cent of those looking for work. Overall, almost half of adults say they intend to take up studies.

However, colleges believe uncertainty about the full extent of cuts in future years is hindering their ability to plan and let students know what provision they would offer in the future.

Mark Dawe, principal of Oaklands College in Hertfordshire, said: "What I want is a bit of clarity about where the cuts are going to end. I don't want to make cuts at the college and then have to make them again the next year and the next."

The rise in participation may mean that the vision of the Government's white paper "The Learning Revolution" is beginning to be fulfilled, with individuals and groups organising their own learning. About 350,000 people reported using iTunes U, for instance, which offers free downloadable lectures from university and college courses.

Thousands of people will be participating in events organised by colleges and learning providers in the week ahead, culminating in the annual award ceremony next Friday.


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