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

21st May 2010 at 01:00
Niace poll finds learning leap of six percentage points in the lowest social class, despite sector cuts

As adult Learners' Week draws to a close today, it emerged that demand for adult education has risen among the poor and unemployed for the first time in 20 years.

The annual UK poll by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (Niace), commissioned for Adult Learners' Week, 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 recession convincing people that they need improved skills to compete in a tough job market.

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

But he warned that cuts could jeopardise this success, because the poorest adults were most likely to rely on publicly-funded education and least able to arrange for alternatives such as online study. This would reinforce "the marginalisation of the marginalised".

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.

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.

But colleges claim 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.

The rise in participation may mean that the vision of a "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.

Fiona Boucher, director of Scotland's Learning Partnership, which organised learners' week north of the border, said there was always room for improvement. But she praised the achievements and successes of adults who have re-engaged with learning, "a re-engagement that results time and time again in nothing but positive outcomes in the learner's life".

The HMIE's two Improving Scottish Education reports highlighted a generally strong picture for adult learning across Scotland. HMI Phil Denning said adult learning "has shown itself to be open to adjusting to new policy developments, such as the early years framework which has resulted in an increase in family learning and parenting programmes".

He added: "However, there is still further work to do to engage adult learning with Curriculum for Excellence and to meet the challenges of a `greying' Scotland, particularly around issues of mental health and social isolation."

The first ever global report on adult learning and education (Grale), published last December, indicated that participation worldwide remains "unacceptably low". National reports from 154 Unesco member states revealed an average rate of 35.7 per cent, although there are huge variations (73.4 per cent of adults in Sweden take part in adult education).

The report also calls for more resources to be devoted to adult education, estimating a global shortfall of $72 billion (pound;49 billion). "In essence, those who have least continue to get least," it states. "This is the `wicked issue' that adult education policy must attack."

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