While participation in adult learning is in decline, Festival of Learning aims to show that barriers can be overcome through its award winners’ stories

19 November 2018

For the last twenty years, Learning and Work Institute (L&W) has run an annual survey to gauge the level of adult participation in learning. Year-on-year, roughly two fifths of adults say that they are participating in learning or have recently done so. However, data from our 2017 survey shows that participation is at its lowest level for twenty years; at 37%, it has dropped four percentage points since 2015.

Learning has been widely shown to not only increase skills, but to also bring a wide range of individual and societal benefits such as greater confidence, increased civic engagement and improved health and wellbeing. If we want to ensure that more adults can experience these benefits, we need to understand and address the challenges that prevent some people from learning.
The most common barrier to learning identified in our 2017 survey was work or other time pressures, mentioned by roughly one in seven adults (14%). Other common barriers included feeling too old (10%), a lack of interest (10%), childcare or other caring responsibilities (9%), cost (8%), an illness or disability (7%) or simply feeling no need to learn (6%).

It was interesting to note that the types of barrier experienced differed according to groups. Those relating to negative attitudes, perceptions and expectations towards learning, such as feeling too old or a lack of confidence, tended to be more common amongst older respondents, those in lower social grades or with a higher level of disadvantage. Whereas barriers concerning personal or family situations, such as childcare or caring responsibilities, were more common for younger respondents and adults with a lower level of disadvantage, and more likely to be mentioned by women than men.

However, a series of interviews carried out alongside the survey revealed the complex and interrelated nature of barriers to learning. Adults, especially those who haven’t engaged in learning for a long period, are likely to face more than one barrier. One interviewee, for example, highlighted a combination of mental health difficulties, low confidence, negative previous experiences in learning, the potential cost of a course and concerns about accessibility.

So, what are the implications of these findings for policy and practice? The results emphasise the importance of identifying and addressing barriers to learning in order to encourage adults to take part. For some adults, practical steps to improve accessibility may be the key to unlocking those doors. This could include, for example, childcare facilities, flexible provision, distance learning or the use of bursaries. For others, barriers could be reduced by addressing negative perceptions or expectations of learning. This could be by making the case for the value and relevance of learning to them as an individual, or by dispelling myths as to who can and who can’t learn. However, for many adults it may be a combination of the two that could make all the difference.

Powerful examples of adults engaging in learning and the benefits gained can be found in our Festival of Learning winner stories. Each year we recognise the achievements of adults who have found a route into learning and by doing so transformed their lives, and the lives of others.

Nominations for the 2019 Festival of Learning Awards are now open and we welcome nominations for adults, tutors, projects and employers from across England until 12 February 2019.

Find out more about Festival of Learning nominations and past winners on the website.


Corin Egglestone, Learning and Work Institute

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