Increase in adult participation in learning

Each year, during Adult Learners’ Week, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education publishes a survey of adult participation in learning in the UK.

Our guest writer is Paul Stanistreet, editor of Adults Learning

Every year, during Adult Learners’ Week in May, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE) publishes a survey of adult participation in learning in the UK. This year’s survey threw up a few surprises, not least that, for the first time in 20 years, there was a significant rise – of six per cent – in the proportion of people from the lowest social class reporting current or recent participation in learning of one sort or another.

The most likely explanation of the rise is that the recession has prompted adults with little previous engagement with education to return to the classroom and learn new skills, to get work or to find a better-paid, more secure job.

This is very much what the last government encouraged people to do, and it invested substantial amounts of money to support people in improving their basic skills and their employability. But what are the prospects for those who do ‘get on their bikes’, go to college and try to advance their careers in this way?

In the same week that NIACE published its survey, the Sutton Trust published a report on the educational backgrounds of members of parliament. It threw up rather fewer surprises. More than a third of MPs elected in the 2010 general election attended independent schools – which educate just seven per cent of the school population – while, overall, just 13 schools (12 of which are fee-charging) produced one in 10 of all MPs in the new parliament.

As the Sutton Trust reported in April, children’s levels of achievement are more closely linked to their parents’ background in England than in most other developed countries. You only need to glance at the educational backgrounds of the new coalition Cabinet to appreciate that Britain remains a country in which the accident of birth largely determines a child’s life chances.

Labour invested heavily in adult and further education, but the results were mixed. Crucially, it led to a narrowing in the range of provision on offer, resulting in cuts to courses and the slashing of colleges’ adult budgets for the current financial year, in some cases by as much as 25 per cent.

These cuts are on a much greater scale than those announced, at around the same time, in higher education. In this case, though, there were no front-page headlines or lead items on radio or TV. The reasons are not difficult to see. More than 50 per cent of leading journalists went to independent, fee-paying schools.

For them, as for most MPs, FE is for other people – and other people’s kids. Most editors and politicians know next to nothing about it because, in the main, it provides education and training for working-class adults and young people.

As Peter Mandelson commented last year, there is no silver bullet when it comes to addressing social mobility, but education is as close as we are likely to get to one. A crucial test of the new government’s commitment to reducing inequality and boosting social mobility will be its investment in adult and further education. Maintaining it is vital if those who were failed by the school system are not to be failed for a second time, as adults.

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