Decade of decline in adult learning with four million ‘lost learners’ since 2010 

1 January 2020

Survey shows adult participation in education has fallen to record low

The government has been urged to put lifelong learning at the heart of its domestic agenda, as a national survey shows the number of adults taking part in learning has fallen to a record low. The survey released today by Learning and Work Institute – shows the number of adult learners has plummeted by nearly 4 million since 2010. 

Learning and Work Institute’s adult participation survey has been tracking the number of adults taking part in learning for over two decades. The latest data from this year’s survey shows that just one in three (33 per cent) adults have taken part in learning in the last three years, the lowest figure ever recorded 

Since 2010, the participation rate has dropped by 10 percentage points. That is equivalent to 3.8 million fewer adults taking part in learning since the start of the decade.  

The fall follows a significant decline in investment over the last decade. Between 2009-10 and 2018-19, government spending on adult education excluding apprenticeships fell by 47%. Employer investment in training in the UK is also low compared to other advanced economies 

In addition to the decline in participation, the survey shows deep inequalities in access to learning, with those who could most benefit from taking part, being least likely to do so. Adults in lower socioeconomic groups (DE) are half as likely to take part in learning than those in higher socioeconomic groups (AB). Adults who left school at 16 or younger are half as likely to take part in learning as those who stayed on in full time education until at least 21.  

The decline should be a real cause for concern given the many benefits of participating in lifelong learning. Increasing the number of adults accessing education and training will be vital both to boosting productivity and to supporting adults to adapt to rapid economic change. Beyond the economic benefits, evidence also shows that adults who take part in learning are more likely to have better health and wellbeing, and to be active in their communities.  

In its manifesto at the recent general election, the Conservative Party set out plans to level up the skills of the entire nation, in order to both boost productivity and enable people to fulfil their potential. This included a new National Skills Fund, worth £600m a year.  

Stephen Evans, chief executive of Learning and Work Institute said:

“With our economy set to undergo transformational change in the coming years, lifelong learning has never been more important. So it should be a real cause for concern that participation has fallen to a record low, and that we have seen nearly 4 million lost learners since 2010.

“If we are to succeed post-Brexit, and if we are to boost productivity and ensure everyone can achieve their potential, we must reverse this decade of decline in adult learning.

“The new government should set a national mission to boost lifelong learning, backed up by sustained additional investment, and a cross-government strategy.”

Robert Halfon MP said;

“Adult learning is one of the most important challenges facing our nation. I strongly welcome the Government’s £3bn National Skills Fund announced in the election Manifesto.

“We need to do more, looking again at personal learning accounts or social credits to those undertaking adult learning, as well as tax credits for businesses who retrain their workers.

“We must also ensure that we have Adult Community Learning Centre in every town in the country. This new survey by the Learning and Work Institute clearly shows that there are many challenges ahead.”

Matthew Fell, chief policy director at CBI UK said: 

“Adult learning is heading in the wrong direction at precisely the wrong time for our economy and our society. Technology is rapidly changing the world of work and driving up demand for new and higher skills.

“Nine in ten workers will need some form of reskilling by 2030, so we need the partnership of the century between individuals, business and government to ensure that everyone can benefit from the opportunities created by new technologies.

“Lifelong learning will be one of the defining issues of our age – countries who get it right will have an exceptional competitive advantage.”


CONTACT

For more information or interview opportunities, contact Joe Dromey, deputy director of research and development, joe.dromey@learningandwork.org.uk, 07736 667 917. 

NOTES:  

  1. Learning and Work Institute is a policy, research and development organisation dedicated to lifelong learning, full employment and inclusion.  
  2. Case studies of adults who have taken part in lifelong learning available on request.
  3. Data on government spending on adult education is available here https://www.ifs.org.uk/publications/14369 
ab