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Social class divide in adult education puts levelling up at risk

Stark social class divide in adult education puts levelling up and social justice at risk (@LearnWorkUK)

25th year of survey shows persistent inequalities in adult participation in learning, despite the first rise in participation since 2015 

A national survey shows stark inequalities in adult learning participation based on social class, age of completing full-time education and proximity to the labour market. The survey is released to mark the start of Lifelong Learning Week, the biggest celebration of lifelong learning in England.

Learning and Work Institute’s (L&W) survey – released today – is the biggest of its kind, tracking the number of adults taking part in learning over the last quarter of a century. This year’s survey shows that 44% of adults have taken part in learning in the last three years. That’s an increase on the record lows found in 2019 following a decade of sharp cuts in adult education funding in England.

However, the latest data shows that adults in lower socio-economic groups (DE) are twice as likely to not have participated in learning since leaving full-time education than those in higher socio-economic groups (AB). Respondents who stayed in education until at least the age of 21 are twice as likely to be learning than those who left aged 16 or under (56% versus 28%). The majority (55%) of full-time workers are taking part in learning, compared to 45% of unemployed adults seeking work.

With people on lower incomes among those most likely to have faced job losses or pay reductions during the pandemic, it is of real concern that these groups are also the least likely to take part in learning. Learning is vital to ensure people can gain new skills, secure employment, retrain for new jobs, and progress to better pay. Beyond career opportunities and the economic benefits of learning, adults who take part in learning are also more likely to have better health and wellbeing, and to be active in their communities.

Feeling they are too old, the cost, and time pressures are the main reasons people give for not taking part in learning. Almost three in 10 adults (29 per cent) who have not recently taken part in learning said that nothing is preventing them from doing so, showing we also need to actively promote the benefits of learning to encourage participation.

The recent spending review announced an increase in adult skills funding after a decade of cuts. However, L&W analysis estimates that this restores only around 60% of the funding cuts since 2010 – leaving a gap of around £750 million. In addition, there needs to be a much greater focus on how the money will be invested to address these inequalities for people with lower levels of qualification and in lower socioeconomic groups, for example to reverse the 60% decline in adult basic skills learning over the last decade.

Stephen Evans, Chief Executive of Learning and Work Institute, said:

“It’s good to see a rise in participation in lifelong learning after years of falls, given how vital learning is for both life and work. In part, an explosion in online learning during the pandemic has sparked people’s interest in learning something new. However, the stark inequalities in access mean that those who could benefit most from learning are least likely to participate. We need a collective effort to build a culture of learning and make this the lifelong learning century.”

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