How men are dodging lifelong learning

Are males under-represented in lifelong learning, and should we worry if they are? Male educational failings certainly grab media headlines. There is a scattering of policy concern, such as the Scottish Funding Council’s 2005 decision to monitor gender imbalances. And we’ve seen the emergence in Britain and Ireland of a fast-growing men’s sheds movement, inspired by the excellent example of the original sheds in Australia. So this seems a good time to look at some evidence.

In Britain, most debate focuses on schools and universities. To date, there has been much less attention to men’s learning in adult life. Veronica McGivney published a landmark study of male attitudes towards and participation in education and training in 1999, noting that although there were significant patterns of exclusion, men as a whole were still more likely to participate in adult learning than women; she concluded that there were deep-rooted cultural and economic reasons for low participation among some groups of men (McGivney 1999). Five years later, she reviewed further data on male participation, together with an analysis of providers’ strategies for engaging men as learners (McGivney 2004). Since then, apart from a number of socio-cultural studies of male attitudes towards higher education, the topic received little sustained interest until Barry Golding’s publications on men’s sheds (Archer, Pratt & Phillips 2001; Burke 2006; Golding 2007, 2009).

It seems probable, then, that men’s learning has received less attention from scholars than has women’s learning.  A quick search of titles and abstracts of publications reported in the British Education Index confirms this. A search using the term ‘women’ returned 300 items, with 126 for the term ‘men’; the term ‘female’ produced 194 results, ‘male’ produced 151 (carried out 8 September 2011). These are not massive differences, but they are consistent with the view that interest in gender and education has largely tended to reflect concern for the situation of women. There are good reasons why this is so, and my intention is not at all to disparage the work of colleagues who research women’s learning. But it does seem a good idea to ask whether men are, for whatever cause, under-represented in adult learning. 

Patterns of participation

NIACE’s annual surveys of participation offer a good starting point. Consistently, from 1996 to 2004, NIACE surveys showed that more men participated than women; since then, participation has equally consistently been higher among women. While significant for current and recent learning, the gender gap is particularly acute in relation to future intentions, with 40% of women and 34% of men reporting in 2011 that they were likely to take up learning in the future (Tuckett & Aldridge 2011).

For vocational training, let’s look at the Labour Force Survey. The Spring 2010 LFS found that women workers were more likely than men to receive training, with 16.5% of women undergoing some form of training during the four-week sample period and 12.7% of men. The LFS separates this overall figure into three categories: those undergoing on-the-job training only, those undergoing off-the-job training only, and those undergoing both types of training; in each category, women were more likely to be trained than men (DfE 2011).

Surveys tend to measure participation as reported by learners and non-learners. There are also important sources of provider data, the most comprehensive of which concerns provision under the Skills Funding Agency. Official data for 2009-10 show that women comprised a minority of learners funded under UfI (46.4%) and Train to Gain (49.4%), both of which are of course forms of publicly subsidised vocational training. Women were, though, a majority among the over-25s on publicly funded apprenticeships, accounting for 60.8% of all over-25s and 64.9% of those on Level 3 and higher level apprenticeships. Women were a clear majority of learners in publicly funded Skills for Life provision (52.4%) and in Adult Safeguarded Learning (74.8%); the former of these mainly comprises basic skills education, while the latter broadly comprises community based adult education (National Statistics 2011, 25 and supplementary tables).

Finally, there are data on adult participation in higher education. Of the 12,300 adults who entered HE with an access qualification in 2008/9, 74% were women, a proportion unchanged from 2002/3 (Heath 2010, 5; Youell 2004, 26). In 2009/10, women comprised 59.3% of UK-domiciled undergraduate degree students and 65.7% of undergraduates on non-degree courses; at postgraduate level, 57.9% of UK part-time students on taught courses were female, as were 52.3% of those taking part-time research degrees (

To summarise, then, a number of different sources suggest at the aggregate level that for most types of adult learning, women are a majority of learners. The only exceptions in the data reviewed here are some types of publicly funded workplace learning. Of course, we immediately need to recognise the limitations of these data sources; in particular, they offer aggregated data that might produce different patterns if broken down into smaller categories. But these are nevertheless important findings, and they should tell us something about the distribution of educational opportunities in contemporary Britain. In particular, they suggest that there are patterns of exclusion at work that have a marked gender dimension. They also confirm that men, at least in general, steer clear of adult learning.

If men are under-represented, how much does it matter, and to whom? Well, there are some obvious losers: men are under-represented in all forms of learning that are not directly connected with their work. As we have come to understand better the benefits of learning, so we have grasped that there are tangible gains beyond the wage packet. These include unanticipated health effects and gains in well-being, as well as more predictable impacts on confidence and willingness to take risks. Participating in learning is likely to be particularly important in preventing cognitive decline among older adults. And it helps fuel the civic engagement and social commitment that can help make communities a better place.  We need to think this through, but at present it looks as though initiatives like the men’s sheds movement deserve our support.


Archer, L., Pratt, S. & Phillips, D. (2001) Working class men’s constructions of masculinity and negotiations of (non)participation in higher education, Gender and Education, 13, 4.

Burke, P. (2006) Men accessing education: gendered aspirations, British Educational Research Journal, 32, 5.

DfE (2011) Education and training statistics for the United Kingdom, 2010,

Golding, B. et al (2007) Men’s sheds in Australia: learning in community contexts, NCVER, Adelaide

Golding, B. (2009) Older men’s lifelong learning, in J. Field, J. Gallacher and R Ingram (eds.), Researching Transitions in Lifelong Learning, Routledge, London.

Heath, L. (2010), Students Entering Higher Education Institutions with Access Qualifications, 2008/09, HESA

McGivney, V. (1999) Excluded men: men who are missing from education and training, NIACE, Leicester

McGivney, V. (2004), Men earn, women learn: bridging the gender gap in education and training, NIACE, Leicester

National Statistics (2011) Quarterly Statistical First Release: Post-16 education and skills, DBIS, London

Tuckett, A. & Aldridge, F. (2011) Tough times for adult learners, NIACE, Leicester 

Youell, A. (2004) Students Entering Higher Education Institutions with Access Qualifications, 2002/03, HESA

Learning our way out? Ireland’s presidential election

 I’ m in Dublin this week, attending AONTAS’ annual conference on community education. Ireland’s economic woes have tended to overshadow everything else in recent years, so it will be a welcome opportunity to catch up with colleagues and listen to what is going on in the adult education community. And to find out what the Irish think of their new president.

 As a nation, Ireland exercises an influence out of all proportion to its size. This is partly due to the size of its ‘diaspora’, and their continuing attachment to their ancestral home; partly to its history, which has placed it at a crossroads between Europe and North America; and partly to the wider appeal of a set of symbols and values that many people think of as distinctively Irish. One of these symbols, in recent years, has been the office of President of Ireland.

 The Uachtarain na hÉireann has few real political powers; but the sheer intelligence, grace and force of personality of Mary Robinson and Mary MacAleese have endowed the role with real standing in the world. At first sight, Ireland’s latest President looks set to strengthen his role’s symbolic authority. Michael D. Higgins is, among other things, a scholar, intellectual and poet. And although he is also a veteran Labour Party politician, he has signalled a willingness to reach out and include all Ireland’s citizens, in a modern manner (one small symbol of this was his invitation to the Humanist Association to join the inauguration, alongside representatives of Ireland’s main faiths).

 It isn’t for me to judge or predict his likely impact on Irish politics, but I do want to draw attention to two aspects of his inaugural speech. First is his emphasis on social solidarity. In telling terms, he argued that the banking collapse, and the financial damage that followed, ‘has left us fragile as an economy, but most of all wounded as a society’. Building a sustainable economy and an inclusive society will, he suggested, require a common search for new values based on ‘an active, inclusive citizenship’. He quoted the Irish proverb: ní neart go cur le chéile, ‘our strength lies in our common weal’.

 Second, President Higgins signalled a new approach to the presidency’s leadership role.  In promoting inclusion and creative thinking, he announced plans for a series of presidency seminars to explore themes that go beyond a particular and specific political agenda. The first is to focus on ‘being young in Ireland’ – a raw topic, at a time when one young adult in eight is unemployed, with lasting scarring consequences that will follow these young people through their life course, and when emigration is again evoking memories of past despair over Ireland’s future. Other topics pencilled in include the restoration of trust in public institutions, and the ethical compact between economy and society. 

 This is more than a hint at the idea of a learning presidency, and hopefully also the broader ambition of a learning society. Of course, not all of the inaugural speech was new: Michael D. Higgins is far too experienced a politician to forget the importance of emphasising a common past, a unifying heritage. Nor is this the end. Inaugurations are a beginning, and much remains to be done. But for once, an inclusive dialogue, and an open approach to social and political learning, could move to the top of the political agenda.