Adult Learning in England: a Review

Hillage J, Uden T, Aldridge F, Eccles J
Report 369, Institute for Employment Studies, May 2000

a study for OECD by IES and NIACE

This is a time of considerable flux in the field of adult learning in England. While participation in general is rising, there is a clear divide between those who benefit from education and training, and those who do not. However, new government policies aim to widen participation. This review forms a baseline from which their impact can be measured.

An ‘adult learner’ generally means anyone involved in education and training who has completed their initial education. Learning policy tends to treat ‘adults’ as people aged 19 or over. ‘Learning’ includes formal education or training leading to a qualification and, increasingly, the range of informal learning opportunities, some of which are significant sources of skill or knowledge development.


Adult education has old roots in religious education, but became widespread as industrialisation fed the demand for popular democracy. Landmarks include the development of the Mechanics’ Institutes in the early 19th Century and in the early 20th, the Workers’ Educational Association and local adult education.

After World War II, there was a marked shift from practical to leisure-based learning, but adult education failed to attract those people who had benefited least from initial education. A series of measures sought to address this issue, including the Open University, which opened in 1971. Two recent milestones were the 1988 White Paper, Employment in the 1990s, which set up TECs, and the Further and Higher Education Act (1992) which removed further education colleges from local authority control, established the FEFC, and encouraged a more utilitarian curriculum. Despite fears to the contrary, the Act triggered a period of growth in adult participation, and greater interest in who was, or was not, participating, further accelerated by the reports of the Kennedy and Tomlinson Committees.

Since the election of a new government, there has been an acknowledgement of the broader aims of education, including social inclusion. A ‘learning society’ is now seen as a desirable social as well as an economic goal. There is an even greater emphasis on widening participation in all forms of learning provision, including further and higher education.

The main policy agency in the field is the Department for Education and Employment, formed in 1995 from a merger of previously separate education and employment ministries. Other official and non-governmental agencies with roles in adult learning, include:

  • Local Education Authorities (LEAs): responsible for local adult education provision, for which there were over one million enrolments in 1998.
  • The Further Education Funding Council (FEFC): responsible for provision of further education (other than higher education) to young people and adults. There were over 3.8 million students in further education in 1998.
  • Training and Enterprise Councils (TECs): independent companies funded by the DfEE to (among other things) ensure that employers’ and workforces’ training needs are met.

The latter two are to be replaced in 2001 by a combined Learning and Skills Council, responsible for all education and training of young people and adults (outside higher education), including adult education.

In addition, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) distributes money to universities and colleges for their higher education work. There were over half a million part-time students in higher education aged over 25 in 1997/98. Other important players include employers, voluntary organisations, such as the Workers’ Educational Association and (increasingly) trade unions. Employers spend between £15 billion and £20 billion a year on training.

Central government currently spends £11 billion a year on Lifelong Learning (including further and higher education provision covering young people as well as adults). Key elements of current policy include:

  • efforts to maximise initial education attainment, particularly in basic literacy and numeracy
  • basic skills training for adults (especially since the 1999 Moser report on literacy and numeracy)
  • new forms of learning provision, using modern technologies to improve efficiency and access, as epitomised by learndirect
  • engaging a wider range of intermediaries to support participation, eg with government support for community learning activities and the involvement of trade unions
  • a willingness to acknowledge and meet the additional costs to providers of attracting, recruiting and retaining non-traditional learners.

Many of the new developments were outlined in the Learning and Skills Bill, published at the end of 1999.


Most adults in England have a positive attitude to learning. Over 90 per cent believe it to be very or fairly important and two-thirds express a desire to learn, although only half expect to actually take part in a learning activity in the near future. Motivations to learn are mainly vocational: to acquire work-related skills (often initiated by an employer), and generally for an existing rather than a future job. Other major motivations are intellectual (to acquire knowledge) and social: to meet and interact with others.

The Labour Force Survey (LFS), which adopts a fairly short-term and vocational definition of learning, suggests that at any one time, one in seven adults (aged 25 or over) is actively engaged in formal learning activity. Using a wider definition of learning, two in three people (aged 25 or over), according to the National Adult Learning Survey (NALS), have within the previous three years been involved in some form of learning activity. The balance of evidence suggests that learning activity among adults is rising. However, participation is not uniform.

There is a clear divide between those who benefit from education and training and those who do not. Younger people, those with high levels of initial education, those in work (especially in higher level occupations and in larger firms) are far more likely to be engaged in learning than older people, those who leave school early, and people in lower-skilled manual jobs. There are also significant regional differences in the extent of adult participation in formal learning.

Barriers to learning

There are three main groups of obstacles which deter participation:

  • practical or material barriers, including: the costs of learning, both direct (fees) and indirect (transport, books, equipment); lack of time; lack of childcare; geographical isolation; and lack of information
  • structural barriers, such as: lack of appropriate education or training opportunities; age or qualification barriers; constraints of the benefit system
  • attitudinal barriers, eg negative attitudes to learning; lack of confidence in one’s ability to learn; lack of motivation.

Learning needs

Recent skills audits in England highlight a deficit in basic and intermediate skills among adults. One in five adults has low levels of literacy and almost half have low levels of numeracy. Employers also report deficits in key skills, including working with others; improving own learning and performance; and problem solving. Other needs include learning for citizenship, for community regeneration and capacity building, and for parenting and family learning.

Widening participation

A range of measures to widen the social profile of people participating in adult, further and higher education have been introduced or proposed in recent years, from specific measures targeting certain groups, to more fundamental changes to funding regimes. Learning providers are attempting to respond to current demands for wider participation. While most (but not all) adult trainers and educators are trained, training may not be adequate to help many teachers deal effectively with the wide range of abilities and differing learning needs they face, especially in teaching of basic skills.

Returns to learning

At an individual level, there is clear evidence of a positive relationship between education level and financial rewards. For instance, middle-aged men with a degree generally earn 60 per cent more than average earnings, while men without any qualification earn 40 per cent less. Some studies also suggest that people who receive training gain between five and 15 per cent in pay. Involvement in learning initiatives among the unemployed has been demonstrated to improve employment chances. The wider benefits of learning at an individual level include improved self-esteem and self-confidence.

At an organisational level, the returns are less easy to identify, although studies do demonstrate a link between investment in training and improved productivity, and also between business success and involvement in Investors in People. At a family and community level, there are signs that adult engagement in learning can have a positive impact on families (especially children at school), and the wider community through a peer group and role model effect.


This is a time of considerable flux in the field of adult learning in England as new structures and policies come on stream. However, there remain a number of challenges including:

  • raising the demand for learning among those who need it most, but are interested in it least
  • encouraging a culture of continuous learning and development at all levels
  • ensuring that new initiatives aimed at widening participation are not dominated by current learners
  • ensuring that a concentration on qualifications does not distort funding and provision
  • maintaining a commitment to social inclusion and the wider purposes of learning in the face of institutional inertia and conservatism
  • ensuring that the lifelong learning agenda includes people of all ages.

Adult Learning in England: a Review, Hillage J, Uden T, Aldridge F, Eccles J. Report 369, Institute for Employment Studies, 2000.
ISBN: 978-1-85184-299-5. PDF Download only: £10.00

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