Few winners, plenty of losers: policy failure in lifelong learning

The Government has finally published the results of its 2010 National Adult Learning Survey. Why it was not published last year is itself a story, but the more important issue is that the survey shows a huge decline in participation in adult learning. The headline is that overall participation fell by 11% from the level of 80% recorded in 2005. Non-formal learning, or courses not leading to a qualification, saw a collapse of 17%; and informal (self-directed) learning saw a drop of 13%. 

As ever, deep inequalities lurk behind the headlines. The age gradient has risen, with much sharper declines in participation among older adults. The gap between 20-29 year-olds and people in their sixties has risen, as has the gap between the 20-29-year-olds and people aged over 70. In a system which was already geared towards youth, older adults have been further marginalised.

The education gradient has also become steeper. Participation fell by 7% among people with higher education qualifications; it fell by 11% among those with Level 2 qualifications, by 14% among those with Level 1 qualifications, and a whoppping 19% by those with no qualifications. This is quite remarkable, given that after the Leitch Review of 2006, Government policy under Labour and the Coalition was allegedly geared towards getting the least qualified to improve their skills and qualifications.

The social mobility gradient has become sharper as well. The drop in participation was 7% among those with at least one parent holding a university degree, and 12% for people whose parents had left education by the age of 16. Taken together with current changes in the taxation and benefits systems, this contradicts the claim that social mobility can be – as deputy prime minister Nick Clegg put it in 2011 – the Coalition’s ‘over-riding social policy objective’.

How can we explain this collapse in lifelong learning? The report suggests that the 2005 figures were inflated by a temporary surge in introductory computer training; this is possible but unlikely, as the result of introductory computer training is generally an increased need for less basic training. The report also claims that ‘employers are training fewer employees’ because of the recession. This sounds plausible until you realise that there is absolutely no evidence for this claim. On the contrary – Alan Felstead and Francis Green have shown that training activity has continued much as usual.

Finally, the report briefly alludes to policy changes, which brought about a critical breakdown in public sector provision. Essentially, Government decided to discourage short courses and courses not leading to qualifications, and prioritise courses leading to Level 2 qualifications. These are the results of policies adopted in 2007, on Labour’s watch (hang your heads in shame, John Denham and Bill Rammell). The Coalition has continued them in England, and now the SNP is taking Scotland down the same path.

The consequences do not need labouring. First, we are heading straight for greater educational and social inequality; second, social mobility will decline as a direct result; and third, any claims about ‘active aging’ must be measured against the negative effects of reduced opportunities for third age learning.

The NALS report is at: www.bis.gov.uk/assets/biscore/further-education-skills/docs/n/12-p164-national-adult-learner-survey-2010.pdf

Felstead and his colleagues’ reports on training in the recession are at: http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/socsi/research/researchprojects/traininginrecession/index.html

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4 thoughts on “Few winners, plenty of losers: policy failure in lifelong learning

  1. How do you see NALS data relating to the recent NIACE survey? The median participation rate there since 1999 seems to be 40% with ups and downs between 46% and 38% (2012) I like your analysis though

    • NALS and the NIACE surveys have always produced slightly different results, partly because they use different definitions of learning. Alan Tuckett was always slightly puzzled that the NIACE survey did not show clear evidence of decline, given that the Learning and Skills Council’s own reports showed that a large number of learners had vanished from the system. And I’ve also mentioned in my next blog the recent work by Geoff Mason, using the Labour Force Survey, which also differs slightly from both the NALS and NIACE findings. It would be good to see a systematic analysis of these sources, and maybe we could persuade someone like Francis Green or Alan Felstead to do some really forensic work on these sources. But I am persuaded that the overall trend is one of decline, starting around 2003-2005, and continuing thereafter; and I conclude that the main cause is change in the policy environment.

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