Stark social class and regional divides in adult learning put at risk Government’s growth and ‘levelling up’ plans


07 11 2022

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A national survey shows stark and persistent inequalities in adult learning participation by social class and geography. The survey is released to mark the start of Lifelong Learning Week, the biggest celebration of lifelong learning in England.

Learning and Work Institute’s (L&W) survey – released today – is the biggest of its kind, tracking the number of adults taking part in learning for the past 26 years. This year’s survey shows that around two in five (42%) adults have taken part in learning in the last three years. This is a slight drop (-3 percentage points) compared to last year’s survey, but in line with rates seen in the early 2000s after recent years of much lower participation. Recent rises have been driven by more people learning informally including online, after Government cuts had led to falls in participation in courses.

However, the latest data shows that adults in lower socio-economic groups (DE) are twice as likely to not have participated in learning since leaving full-time education than those in higher socio-economic groups (AB). This ‘class penalty’ in learning has persisted since the survey started and shown little sign of narrowing.

Adult Participation in Learning Survey 2022

This year’s survey also shows that the gap between the highest and lowest performing geographical regions has widened. London has by far the highest rate of adult participation in learning at 56%, compared to 35% in South West England – a 21 percentage point difference compared to a 17 percentage point difference in 2019.

This puts at risk the Government’s ‘levelling up’ plans, given the growing importance of lifelong learning to economic growth, individual opportunity, and social inclusion.  This highlights the importance of investing in lifelong learning ahead of the Government’s Medium Term Fiscal Plan, with Learning and Work Institute analysis showing investment in England is set to be £1 billion lower in 2025 than in 2010.

Stephen Evans, Chief Executive of Learning and Work Institute, said:
The stark inequalities in access highlighted by our survey mean that those who could benefit most from learning are least likely to participate. The gap between the highest and lowest performing regions is, if anything, widening, so we need practical action to level up, not down. Ahead of the Government’s Medium Term Fiscal Plan, this survey makes the case for increased investment in lifelong learning to boost economic growth and social justice. We also need local government, civic society, employers and others to help build a culture of lifelong learning. Lifelong Learning Week offers a chance for us all to do that.