The role we can all play in addressing inequalities in adult learning

27 September 2012

One of the challenges I wanted to face up to when I joined NIACE was to decide what to do with the results of the annual survey of learning participation, which has become an annual event since the mid-1990s. I viewed it as a challenge when I started and I still do simply because the findings are so grim. Put very simply, the percentage of people saying that they have participated in learning in the last 3 years has stayed fairly static since 1996, at around 40%. At a very trivial level there is a challenge about what title to give the report, given that over the years every conceivable version of ‘it’s tough times for adult learning’ have been used up.

More importantly the findings are depressing – not only the overall numbers, but things look more challenging and worrying when they are disaggregated by social-economic class and other dimensions. The inequalities are staggering, even if for those of us who have been in adult education a long time they are not that surprising. Two statistics stand out for me.

The first is that around half of those in social-economic class AB (49%) have been learning in the last 3 years, whereas only a quarter of those in class DE have (24%). The second is that four fifths of the current learners (79%) are expecting to participate in learning again in the future but only one fifth of those who have not participated in learning since leaving school are expecting to (17%). These and the other findings lead to the two headline conclusions that if you did not have a good experience of learning at school you are much less likely to carry on learning in later life and that once you’re a learner you’re always a learner.

The ultimate challenge to us in NIACE is the ‘so-what?’ question – they are findings which can serve to simply depress if nothing is done to address them. That is why this year we are trying something different. We are sending out the report to a range of people who have some interest in and some part to play in adult learning and asking them to respond to the findings. We want them to tell us what the findings spur in them – what they might do as an individual, in their organisation, with others, to try to address the stark inequalities which our survey has once again shone a light on.

We are asking as wide a range of people as possible because of the diversity of where people learn, what they learn and why they learn. So we will seek commitments and ideas from educationalists, employers, unionists, learners and more. My thinking and my hope is that by asking people for a response we will start to get wider ownership for addressing the challenge. And in part, by recognising that we all have a part to play in tackling it, we will make it more manageable. Each of us on our own will not make the changes happen, but lots of us together can make a great start.

We value a cross section of opinions so please tell us what you think of the findings, what they spur you onto doing and what you think others might do as well. Either add a comment at the end of this blog, join the conversation on Twitter using #learningsurvey or email us at

NIACE has an important role to help make things change as well as pulling together the responses and the ideas which we expect to generate. We are holding an event later in the autumn to discuss the findings and to share how people have responded. It is not easy, but it is important. Thanks for your support.