From education to employment

Why fewer young people learning matters to everyone

In the run up to Adults Learners’ Week (18 – 24 May), NIACE published the latest findings from its annual survey on adult participation in learning. The survey, based on face to face interviews with 5,000 adults aged 17 and over across the UK showed a dramatic and worrying decline in participation among young adults under 25 (from 77% to 70%) and particularly those aged 17-19 (from 88-79%), alongside a fall in the proportion of unemployed adults learning.

In responding to the findings, the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) referenced data from the much larger Labour Force Survey (LFS), which is used to measure numbers engaged in formal training. The latest figures from the LFS, from the end of 2012, report no change among 16-24-year-olds and a slight increase among those aged 16-18.

So why is it that these two surveys, both robust and respected across the sector, seem to suggest inconsistent findings? I would suggest that there are two main factors at play. Firstly, much of the difference lies in the contrast between what the two surveys are measuring. While the Labour Force Survey seeks to measure levels of engagement in formal training, the NIACE surveys take a much broader definition of learning, including formal, non-formal and informal learning, covering activity that extends far beyond the limits of publicly offered educational opportunities.

Secondly, we know from many years of undertaking our survey that although it may under-represent levels of some activity (for example, very short episodes of learning), it helpfully provides a measure of how young people and adults see themselves – as a learner or not. This is incredibly important. Each year the survey shows that the majority of those who see themselves as a learner, recognise the benefits of learning and, confident in their own ability to learn, expect to continue learning throughout their lives. In contrast, most of those who currently see themselves as not being a learner, continue to see learning as being ‘not for people like me’ throughout their adult lives.

Regardless of which data we use to help us understand the issues around young people’s participation in learning, the fact remains that far too many young people are not engaged in learning – an unpalatable truth when research shows the impact of this can be devastating and can continue well into their adult lives. Both BIS and NIACE agree that this is not good enough. We are working together to improve educational and training opportunities for young people and to encourage them to recognise the many benefits of taking up these opportunities. The recent announcement of Traineeships for 16-18 year olds is a good start, though we believe that they should be extended to, at least those aged 24. We also believe that the Government needs to act in two ways to ensure that Traineeships work. Firstly, in ensuring that the workplace opportunities that are on offer are of high quality, and secondly, in enabling young people to either access benefits or be paid a wage, whilst on Traineeships.

Research consistently shows that participation in learning declines with age – the older you are, the less likely you are to take part in learning. If we expect young people to continue to learn in the future, so that they develop the skills and knowledge to successfully contribute at work as well as in their families and wider communities, then it is vital that we ensure that they are provided with the right opportunities today to begin their learning journey.

Fiona Aldridge is head of learning for work at NIACE, which encourages all adults to engage in learning

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