From education to employment

National Survey of Adult Learners Reveals Positive Impact of Lifelong Education on Employability and Wellbeing


Adult education has the potential to improve employability, skills development and cultural integration, according to an independent survey of 4000 adult learners in the UK, conducted by the WEA.

The figures are published in the organisation’s annual Impact Report and reveal the positive impact that lifelong learning can have on individuals, their communities and society as a whole.

Participation figures for adult education have fallen every year since 2011 due to funding cuts and changes to policy. This is despite evidence which shows how it can improve the quality of life of the most disadvantaged in society, enabling them to contribute more and rely less on the health service and government funded financial support.

The report findings will be presented at a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Adult Education held on 23rd November 2017, Chaired by Chi Onwurah MP. 

The WEA has over 50,000 students across the UK and they represent some of the hardest to reach in society. Almost a quarter (24%) reported having a physical health condition or illness, 12% a learning difficulty or a disability and 12% a mental health condition. Over one-fifth (21%) reported being carers for their ill, disabled or elderly relatives or friends.

The findings from the report are published alongside a stark warning from the charity, that without sustained funding and a new national strategy for lifelong learning, the positive impacts it reveals are coming under threat.

Key findings from the report include:

Employability and skills – prospects improve through adult education

  • 28% of student on benefits are off them 4 months after going on a WEA course
  • 57% of students who were unemployed and looking for work before the course became employed after
  • 62% of employed students gained new skills or knowledge that could be used in a job, rising to 88% for students with no qualifications and 84% for BAMER students
  • 63% improved their communication skills with over a third improved language and literacy skills

Health and wellbeing – lives improved through community learning

  • 82% of students with mental health issues reported improvements in their condition
  • 57% of those surveyed felt that studying helped to reduce stress
  • Nearly three quarters reported an increase in confidence

Family and the community – better engagement in society and at home

  • Nearly half of those surveyed (48%) reported being more understanding of other cultures and 38% felt they were more respectful to difference than they were previously
  • 27% felt a heightened sense of belonging to Britain than before their WEA course
  • 65% of WEA students with children under 18 improved their confidence in helping their children with reading, writing or maths as a result of their course

Chief Executive of the WEA, Ruth Spellman said: “The figures in this report highlight the vital role adult education plays uplifting our communities. We face increasingly complex challenges as a country which compulsory under-19 education alone cannot address. We need to make education attractive and stimulating for adult learners – this is what the WEA does, even with very disadvantaged groups of learners.

“We know adult education can improve national health and productivity but we’re deeply concerned about the impact of cuts to funding and changes to policies.. We need to act now to secure the future of adult education, and reach out to those on the edges of society and offer them the chance to contribute in a positive way.”

Trevor Phillips, Chairman of the WEA said: “The need for community learning in today’s society is more important now than it ever has been since the WEA began in 1903. The findings in this report provide vital evidence of how lifelong learning or community learning positively transforms the lives of thousands of people across the country.”

Our adult learners


Jo never got on well at school in Oxford and dropped out early. By 17 she’d developed a drug problem and got into an abusive relationship, one that culminated in her being beaten by her dealer boyfriend, locked in her flat and left unconscious in a pool of blood. It was only after neighbours heard her screams, that an ambulance was called.  But her troubles continued.  She turned to crime, and ended up in prison.  Here she tried to get her education back on track, but it didn’t take root. It was only when she left prison, and came back to Oxford, that she decided she was better than this, and it was then that she found the WEA.  Jo was so lacking in confidence she nearly didn’t start the course. “I didn’t even know whether I’d fit in, if they’d want to teach me, because of my past, but it didn’t make any difference at all.” But the WEA wasn’t like school, it was close by her, in a local community centre. Her tutor, Vivien made Jo feel at ease, letting her learn at a pace that suited her. Three years later Jo now volunteers for the WEA herself and is studying towards a qualification in special needs teaching.  And she’s still in touch with Vivien, now as a friend as well as a student.

“Most of my friends that I knew from home were in prison, or dead so when I came back it was just me. Doing the WEA course helped me settle, get my bearings and build friendships with good people…not just people. Studying with the WEA is a life-changing thing for a lot of people, and my whole life would be different without it”

To meet Lisa Birch today, all confident smiles and chattiness, you wouldn’t know how tough her earlier life had been.  Lisa left home at 16, pregnant, was in and out of an abusive relationship which had “knocked the stuffing out of who [she] was”. After her son was born, she moved, from one “squatty” bed and breakfast to another for over a year, frightened and trying to make the best of it on her own.
“It just felt like one struggle after another…until the WEA came along.” Her first encounter with the WEA was with Emma, her tutor, who was handing out flyers at the school gate. “I wouldn’t have known adult education existed had they not been right there on my doorstep”.   As a single mum Lisa couldn’t afford to take time off work, but the WEA class was nearby. “Immediately, I felt comfortable….the fact that they hold classes in places I know, that are just a few minutes walk from my house made all the difference.”
Lisa’s confidence grew during her citizenship course, and she went on to study further courses, ultimately moving on to Ruskin college in Oxford where she now works.  When once she could barely put her hand up in class, she is now full of confidence.  She has even presented to an All Parliamentary Party Group at the House of Commons. “That was a really scary thing…when you haven’t done it and you’re not used to it”, she laughs.  For Lisa the WEA has made all the difference.  “It builds your confidence, and it’s a great way to make friends….It’s a chance to improve your life, for you, for your family, for your community.” 
About the research: This research examined the impact of mostly short (between 15 – 30 hours) WEA courses predominantly completed in the autumn term of 2016. The sample included students who completed courses (single and multiple) in various subject areas.
The data was gathered using a quantitative online survey sent out to all WEA students with email addresses. The survey received 4,023 complete responses in Spring 2017. Data was weighted to account for unequal probabilities of selection into the sample and non-response. Thus the sample was representative of the entire WEA student population within a margin of error of 1.3 percent. Impact on different student groups was analysed by taking key demographic and course characteristics into account and were reported where statistically significant.

About The WEA: Founded in 1903, the WEA is the UK’s largest voluntary sector provider of adult education, delivering over 9,000 part-time courses for over 50,000 people each year in England and Scotland. With the active support of around 350 local branches, 3,000 volunteers, 2,000 part-time tutors and 10,000 members, the WEA provides high quality, student-centred and tutor-led education for adults from all walks of life. We also maintain our special mission to provide educational opportunities to adults facing social and economic disadvantage.
The WEA provides courses across four curriculum themes:
  • Employability: to develop confidence, understanding and skills to help adults, at all stages of their lives, participate more fully in the world of work
  • Health & Wellbeing: to combat inequalities and promote a social and preventative model of health and well-being
  • Community Engagement: to combat social exclusion and promote active citizenship
  • Culture: to broaden horizons through understanding cultures, identities and environments embodying our commitment to social purpose

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