NALS reports fall in learner numbers

11 October 2012

The National Adult Learner Survey (NALS) 2010 – by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) – shows that “adult participation in all categories of learning in the three years preceding the survey was 69%, […] an 11 percentage point decline from the 80% recorded in NALS 2005 [and] the lowest level recorded in the NALS series.”

In an initial response to the survey, David Hughes, NIACE Chief Executive, said:

“The results of this survey are not a surprise, but they are extremely worrying.

Our own survey has shown a decline of 5 percentage points in participation since 2010. We know things have got worse since 2010 because all 3 investors in learning (employers, the State and individuals) have been feeling the pinch, which has hindered their ability to invest in or pay for learning. For learners this is as much about travel, childcare and learning resources, as it is about fees.

Learning is a critical support to people in times of change: it provides the tools and self-confidence for people to understand and cope with change, as well as go on to manage and lead change. So it is deeply worrying that, as the economic pain is stronger than ever, fewer adults have the opportunities to learn and to deal with those changes.

Since 2010 the Government has acted to address the challenges: for instance by funding community learning innovation projects (Adult Community Learning Fund, Community Learning Innovation Fund, Community Learning Trusts), continuing to support Adult Learners’ Week (the largest festival of learning in the country), supporting NIACE’s initiative for careers advice for people in the mid-stage of their lives and by providing freedoms to the front line to engage with communities and learners.

However, Government action on its own is not enough. More needs to do be done to encourage all employers to invest in their workforce – the recent National Employer Survey showed that 2/5 of employers do not do so.

We are particularly worried that as overall participation declines, it is likely that inequalities will increase. We know from our own survey that people who are learning now are more likely to do so in the future – 80% of current learners intend to learn in the future compared with only 20% of those who have not participated recently.

We believe that the figure of 7% for the ‘learning avoidant’ is much higher now. One in three (34%) respondents in our survey said there was nothing that would make them more likely to learn in the future. These are the people for whom current policy and opportunities are not working.

The National Adult Learner Survey provides food for thought on the Advance Learning Loans being introduced from next year. There is some evidence here about price sensitivity, but what shines through is that people make decisions based on the benefits they expect and hope to accrue from their learning. Therefore, we need to do more to inform and explain what those benefits are likely to be before we can expect people to agree to take out income-contingent loans. This degree of sophisticated information and the support networks for people to consider the information are critical to the success of the Advanced Learning Loans policy.

On the back of our annual participation survey this year we have been asking employers, colleges, providers, unions and others from across the sector about what needs to happen to encourage more people into learning – the results of this survey reconfirms the urgency of that task. Our event at the end of November will be a great opportunity for all of us to consider the steps which need to be taken to ensure that these figures do not get worse in the next few years.”

The NIACE Research Team is currently carrying out in-depth analysis of the results of this survey and NIACE will publish a more detailed response in the next few days.