Essential skills participation still short of pre-pandemic levels

By Alex Stevenson, Head of Essential and Life Skills at Learning and Work Institute


30 11 2022


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Last week, the latest Government figures on learner participation and achievement in further education and skills revealed that overall adult participation is lower than pre-pandemic levels, with an 11% drop in apprenticeship starts and a 25% drop in participation in adult FE provision compared to 2018/19.

This trend is broadly reflected in the data released for adult English, maths and ESOL learning, which show that adult participation in English and in maths has yet to recover to 2018/19 pre-pandemic levels.  Participation in adult ESOL shows a slight increase on 2018/19 levels, but this masks regional variations.

These figures demonstrate a continued need to focus on adult participation in English, maths and ESOL learning in England, particularly in the wider historical context of sharply declining participation in English and maths over the past decade. The £560m Multiply adult numeracy programme will help address participation in maths over the next three years.  But renewed effort and investment is needed in English and ESOL too.

Failing to address adults’ essential skills needs risks undermining the Government’s ambitions for a high skill, high wage economy.  Good literacy, numeracy and English language skills underpin progression to higher level upskilling and retraining opportunities provided through the National Skills Fund.  Essential skills help people to find work, and give the confidence to return to the labour market after time out. They are also important in helping people access the services and support they need to stay healthy and active in their communities.


In adult English, participation has fallen from 360,270 in 2018/19 to 239,160 in 2021/22, a decrease of 34% since the pre-pandemic period.

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Although there are some signs of recovery, adult participation in English remains lower in every region in England, compared with pre-pandemic levels in 2018/19.

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Adult participation in maths learning has also failed to recover to pre-pandemic levels.  Participation has fallen from 364,000 in 2018/19 to 258,310 in 2021/22, a decrease of 29%.

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As with English, adult participation in maths remains lower in every region in England than in 2018/19, despite some recent recovery.

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In contrast, adult participation in ESOL learning has recovered to pre-pandemic levels. Overall, participation in ESOL learning in England has increased from 120,490 in 2018/19 to 123,730, a rise of 3%.

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However, this recovery in ESOL participation has not taken place in every region of England. Participation in ESOL is now higher in the North East, the North West, Yorkshire and the Humber, the South West and London than in 2018/19.  However, in the East Midlands, West Midlands, East of England and the South East, participation remains below 2018/19 levels, despite recent signs of recovery.

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By Alex Stevenson, Head of Essential and Life Skills at Learning and Work Institute