Major report on learning’s role in reducing health inequalities cites NIACE work

16 January 2014

NIACE’s work – including evidence presented as part of the Inquiry into the Future for Lifelong Learning, research work on learning in care settings and the Prescriptions for Learning Project – has been used by researchers as evidence of the key role that learning plays to reduce health inequalities, in a major report published by the British Academy.

The report – “If you could do one thing…” Nine local actions to reduce health inequalities – is a collection of opinion pieces on health inequalities from leading social scientists. Each of the authors has drawn on the evidence base for their particular area of expertise and identified one policy intervention that they think local authorities could introduce to improve the health of the local population and reduce health inequalities.

In the chapter, ‘The Scope of Adult and Further Education for Reducing Health Inequalities’, the authors Andrew Jenkins, (Institute of Education, London) and Tarani Chandola, (University of Manchester), discuss how adult education practitioners have long been aware of the power that learning can have in transforming individual lives. They cite growing statistical evidence to support this, showing associations between participation in various types of adult learning and improvements in wellbeing, health, and health-related behaviours.

However, as Andrew Jenkins and Tarani Chandola highlight:

“The benefits of learning at individual-level do not necessarily imply that investment in education will reduce health inequality. For example, if additional investment in post-compulsory learning is heavily weighted towards higher education among young adults, this would probably be of disproportionate benefit to middle class young people. The long-term impact of such an intervention could then be to increase inequalities in health rather than reducing them. Similarly, funding for training programmes that were only available to those in work would run the risk of increasing inequalities between the unemployed and the employed.”

Bearing these complexities in mind, the authors recommend three key interventions.

  1. There is a strong case for the provision of financial support to those without any educational qualifications to attend further and adult education institutions and obtain qualifications.
  2. Adult learning for people who leave school without any qualifications should focus on key literacy and numeracy skills, the lack of which acts as a major barrier to obtaining employment. A policy which concentrates on learning for such economically disadvantaged groups is unlikely to suffer from the risk of increasing inequalities in health.
  3. As the NIACE-sponsored Inquiry into the Future for Lifelong Learning argued, there is a good case for the education budget to provide more support for older learners. Adult learning could contribute to a healthy and active old age.

The authors conclude:

“Unfortunately, policy in recent years has tended to focus on young people doing full-time courses while funding for other forms of learning has been cut back. Increasing the financial barriers for adult learners will be felt particularly acutely among the socially disadvantaged and there is a real concern that this will have detrimental consequences for health equality.”

Penny Lamb, Head of Policy Development at NIACE, said:

“This is a timely and important report. We welcome the wide-ranging perspectives on health inequalities, of which learning for adults is clearly shown as having a crucial role to play in ensuring widespread better health and well-being. The report makes a compelling case for continued public investment in adult learning at a time when such funds are under threat. It also provides evidence, including from NIACE’s own research and project work, for local public health commissioners on how adult learning can work effectively as primary prevention and intervention techniques.”