From education to employment

We Must Tailor Adult Education Around Key Life Stages If We Are To Tackle Skills Gaps

With participation in adult education at a 20-year low and the UK economy and society facing many critical challenges, new research reveals that we must tailor provision around key life stages if we are to successfully address the challenges the country faces including; advances in technology, the changing nature of work and the need to reskill through extended working lives.

The WEA commissioned the Learning and Work Institute to undertake the research, which was funded and published by the Further Education Trust for Leadership.

The new “Learning at Life Transitions research report provides insights into what influences adults in their decision-making process, particularly during two key life transitions:

  1. Preparing for retirement, and
  2. Returning to work after caring responsibilities.

For returners, the most significant challenge often relates to work and time pressures, primarily associated with childcare arrangements.

For those who have spent a long time out of education, a lack of confidence in being able to learn successfully is also an issue; for some, the thought of returning to learning is ‘overwhelming’.

Attitudinal barriers, such as feeling too old, not wanting to learn, or the perception that their skills and capabilities may have deteriorated can become more prevalent for adults moving into retirement.

Recommendations for practice include:

  • Provide opportunities for adults at key life transitions to take a first step into learning and build confidence
  • Provide a curriculum that aligns with the goals, aspirations and interests of adults across a range of life stages and transitions.
  • Offer flexible provision that can fit alongside learners’ competing priorities
  • Provide quality, affordable childcare provision
  • Regularly review your provision and learner profile to better understand the extent to which you are attracting and meeting the needs of adults at key life stages

Recommendations for policy include:

  • Increase investment in lifelong learning
  • An entitlement to lifelong learning
  • Personal learning accounts
  • An entitlement to career reviews as part of age and life stage appropriate information, advice and guidance
  • Consideration should also be given to how the National Retraining Scheme will support older adults
  • Flexible timetabling and blended learning options to facilitate part-time and flexible apprenticeship models should be developed

Dr Fiona Aldridge, director for policy and research at Learning Work Institute said:

“We all know that as our circumstances change, so do our ambitions and priorities. This is particularly true for those returning to work after caring for children or facing retirement.

“Learning has an important role to play in helping all adults achieve their ambitions, with key life transitions prompting many to think afresh about opportunities to learn and train.

“Our study has clear messages about how policy and practice can be developed to engage more returners and retirees in learning – helping to tackle both an overall decline and inequalities in adult learning participation. With strong evidence of the benefits of learning, including improved health, well-being and productivity, this must surely be a priority if we are to support more people to thrive and achieve their potential.”

Chief Executive of the WEA, Ruth Spellman said:

“We must understand motivations and priorities of adults at life transitions in order to tackle low levels of participation and it is vitally important to explore all ways in which a change in policy or practice might stem or reverse the trend.

“For those furthest away from the labour market, provision designed to build confidence is critical to both increasing and widening access to learning. For returners, flexible provision, such as blended learning that fits around other responsibilities is more of a priority; as is practical support such as suitable, quality and flexible childcare provision, financial support and support from employers.

“The idea of continuing learning throughout life has become fractured and disjointed and acting on these findings will be critical if we are to address the under-representation in learning faced by adults in these two key life transitions.”

Dame Ruth Silver, President of the Further Education Trust for Leadership said:

“The Further Education Trust for Leadership is pleased to have funded this WEA project, delivered by the Learning and Work Institute. It is important that we understand the role of education and learning in enabling adults to manage moments of transition and upheaval in their lives, and retirement and returning to work after caring for children remain two of the most fundamental life transitions we are likely to face.

“I very much hope the research will add to our understanding of the relationship between learning and transition, the opportunities that exist and the barriers people face in making the most of them. We can no longer afford to think of education as something that ends at 16, or 18, or 21. We need to invest in our people throughout their lives, ensuring that opportunities are available for adults to learn at every life stage, particularly for those who need it the most.”

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