Going down: the continuing falls in adult participation in learning

12 October 2017

The word disastrous is overused. But it feels apt when looking at the latest data on participation in learning by adults.

Let’s start at the beginning. There are reports going back at least 200 years that highlight the UK’s relatively poor skills base as holding back economic prosperity, social inclusion, and opportunity. There is comprehensive evidence showing the benefits of learning for health, work and communities. I won’t rehearse it here, but Learning and Work Institute produced a summary of some of it here.

So you can construct any manner of arguments as to why we need to improve our skills base. And the good news is that our qualifications profile has improved over time (noting that qualifications are only one proxy for skills, and often, though not always, not necessarily a great one).

Qualifications profile

The bad news is that most other countries have also been improving, often from a higher base and at a faster pace. The result is that we are running to stand still in the international league tables. We’re around upper quartile in the OECD for higher level skills (pushing for a Champions League spot) but bottom half and in relegation form for literacy, numeracy, lower and intermediate skills.

The government has recognised a lot of this. It’s why it’s pushed expansion in apprenticeships, reforms of technical education and much else besides. But overall substantial cuts in public funding for learning for adults, coupled with implementation and delivery problems in many areas, mean that instead of making progress, we risk losing ground.

The latest participation data, published today, show this. The headlines will be grabbed by big falls in apprenticeship starts in the first few months of the Levy. It’s not yet clear if these represent teething troubles with the new system, the consequence of a spike in starts before the Levy, or a bigger problem. We set out our concerns and proposals to improve quality and access here.

But what is clear is that there have been longstanding falls in participation in so many forms of learning by adults between 2011/12 and 2015/16 (the latest full year data available – importantly these are provisional figures and so may be revised in November).


Adult learning

The first thing that strikes me about this chart is that virtually every number is below zero – there have been falls across the board. The second thing is how many vital areas have fallen: given nine million adults have low literacy or numeracy, a 20% fall in adults learning these skills is awful; given that community learning can provide a ladder to further learning, a 16% fall has implications for other types of learning too. Third, a caveat: this is participation in formal, funded learning; our survey of broader participation in learning is forthcoming – watch this space…

What is to be done about this? I would say three things:

  • Invest in learning. To secure our future prosperity and fairness we need to invest in learning for adults. For example, we have made the case for an additional £200m per year for basic skills. But we also need to make this a national effort: government, employers and individuals investing together;
  • Lifelong learning strategy. We need a clear pan-government strategy for lifelong learning, showing how the pieces of the jigsaw fit together and what that social partnership with people and employers will look like;
  • New ways of working. We need to do more of what works, and test new ways of engaging and working with employers and individuals where we don’t. For example, surveys show the biggest reason adults don’t participate in learning is because they don’t see it as relevant.

These latest figures should be a wake up call. Skills and learning are vital for our future, but participation is falling and we started from too low a base. We have a government that talks more about further education than many previous ones. It’s time for investment to underpin that commitment.