How can we build more sustainable social prescribing services into learning to improve mental health?

By Asli Atay and Naomi Phillips


11 03 2022


Tagged by:


Learning through life, for any reason and none, improves work, health, wellbeing and active citizenship. We’ve known the benefits of adult education for a long time – at L&W we’ve been promoting them and making the case for widening access to learning for the past 100 years.

So, we were really pleased to work in partnership with Greater London Authority (GLA) to understand how the links between social prescribing and adult learning could be strengthened, in order to improve people’s health and wellbeing. The Mayor of London set growing social prescribing services as one of five goals as part of the 2018 London Health Inequalities Strategy. The goal is to make social prescribing a routine part of community support across the capital and ensure that every Londoner have access to social prescribing by 2028.

Social prescription is about “prescribing” or linking people to activities and services outside of NHS services that help to address challenges they’ve been facing such as loneliness which, in turn, may also be impacting on their health. Adult education, which provides opportunities to engage in activities to develop new skills, knowledge, and abilities, has a clear place in the social prescribing landscape.

And, as we set out in the research, social prescribers and adult education providers work towards similar goals:

  • An increase in wellbeing by a decrease in anxiety, depression, and loneliness
  • An increase in self-esteem
  • Developing skills to self-sustain and manage life

For instance, Martha, (not her real name) who was socially prescribing to art courses, described her experience as follows:

“Not only is it confidence-building and better for your mental health, I think it is so education-based…and I actually said to my link worker, ‘I know what I’m doing.’”.” (Learner, Focus group participant)

So, what did we do?

We reviewed the available evidence, and mapped the picture in London. We spoke to adult learners who had been referred to adult education to improve their mental health. And we also conducted interviews and workshops with stakeholders, including social prescribing link workers, service managers and heads of service, GPs, adult education service managers, heads of adult learning services, principals, and representatives of community organisations providing learning opportunities.

People told us that, although social prescribing has been around for a while, there is a lot of variability between London boroughs in how prominent social prescribing services are. Most social prescribing services and communities are relatively newly established. However, there is an increasing growth both in demand for, and supply of, social prescribing services. Therefore, it is a great time to understand what is available out there and how we can better support providers and those in need of these services.

We were particularly struck by how those who had been referred to learning through social prescribing improved their wellbeing and mental health. And, more importantly, how people learned to sustain their wellbeing even after completing the courses. Both from social prescribers’ and adult learners’ side it was clear that these services could benefit more people if they are more widely available.

As researchers, we learnt that there are four main challenges in order to further develop social prescribing to adult education in London:

  • Lack of awareness of the benefits of adult education on mental health amongst social prescribers and amongst beneficiaries of these services
  • Delivery of learning for mental health reasons is not a priority in the Adult Education Budget funding
  • Lack of standardised approaches to outcomes measurement is a major barrier in understanding what is working and what is not
  • Inconsistent or underdeveloped partnership working is preventing information sharing between providers and practitioners

What needs to happen next?

This Social Prescribing Week 7-11 March, together with GLA, we’ve published new research on social prescribing and adult education in London, and a practical guide, ‘Learning the way to improve mental health and wellbeing’, which should be useful to practitioners anywhere in the country.

These set out a number of policy and practice recommendations, including: visible strategic support and system leadership; better utilising the Adult Education Budget to fund learning and wellbeing services and; improving data collection and measuring outcomes.

Many social prescribers and adult education providers who we spoke to foresee an increase in the demand for their services as a result of the pandemic. So there’s never been a better opportunity to improve mental health and wellbeing, and reduce pressure on the NHS, through further rolling out social prescribing into adult learning.

Social prescribing into adult education in London research