Learning system is broken and needs reform, NIACE survey finds

The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE) launches its Summer Budget recommendations to unlock the potential of 5 million people stuck in low paid work. NIACE’s annual learning participation survey – also published today – highlights the need for Government to do more to stimulate demand for learning

In a report to mark the launch of Adult Learners’ Week (13 – 19 June), NIACE warns that the Government must transform the employment and skills system to avoid a productivity crisis.   

Raising the Productive Potential of the Economy sets out NIACE’s recommendations, ahead of more detailed proposals for the spending review, on how rapid progress can be made despite further pressures on unprotected Departmental budgets. The calls to action include:

  • protected funding for English, maths, Traineeships and ESOL, which should be delivered through the new Citizens’ Curriculum;
  • Britain’s five million low paid workers should be supported to progress through a new Career Advancement Service;
  • halving the disability employment gap through Government funding for new locally-designed pilots for distinct employment programmes for disabled people.

NIACE’s annual learning participation survey – also published today – highlights the need for Government to do more to stimulate demand for learning. The research shows that people who left school at 16 are very unlikely to continue learning in any form, with socio-economic class still the major marker for participation. 

According to the survey, two in five (41 per cent) UK adults have taken part in learning in the last three years – an increase of three percentage points from 2014. However, the research highlights that large groups of our society are often excluded and disadvantaged in life and work, including people who are 55+, those from lower socio-economic backgrounds and people in low paid work.

The report reveals:

  • Over half of those in the higher socio-economic classes (54 per cent of ABs; 52 per cent of C1s) have taken part in learning during the previous three years, compared with 35 per cent of skilled manual workers (C2s) and 26 per cent of unskilled workers and people on limited incomes (DEs)*
  • 35 per cent of unemployed people have taken part in learning in the last three years  – a seven per cent decline since 2014
  • One in four (25 per cent) of those who left school at or before 16 participate in adult education compared to more than half (52 per cent) of those who left full-time education aged 21+
  • Nearly two-thirds (62 per cent) of adults without regular access to the internet have not taken part in learning since leaving full time education.

Older people

  • Those 55 and over are least likely to take part in any form of learning
  • The decline in participation is particularly steep for those aged 55 and over, with less than one in three (31 per cent) of people aged 55-64 participating in learning, 20 per cent of people 65-74 and only 12 per cent of those aged 75+


  • Women are four times more likely than men to identify lack of childcare arrangements or other care responsibilities as standing in the way of their learning
  • Women are more likely to say they cannot afford to learn (58 per cent compared to 42 per cent of men)

David Hughes, chief executive of NIACE, said: “This research shows that millions of people are missing out on learning which will help them get on, help businesses and strengthen the economy and society. The learning system is broken for millions of people and we need major reform to change that.  

“Part of the challenge is to persuade and encourage people to have the confidence that learning will benefit them and that they have the ability to learn. But we also know that even where people do want to learn, the opportunities are simply not accessible. If this Government truly wants to raise the productive potential of the nation, then we need to foster a universal culture of lifelong learning. That will require a different approach and bold actions from the Government as well as from others; we are ready to support them in that.

“NIACE has closely examined the Conservative Party’s manifesto commitments, and our Summer Budget submission, Raising the Productive Potential of the Economy, proposes urgent short term measures which will help move towards a more inclusive, productive economy: protected funding for English, maths, traineeships and ESOL which should be delivered through the Citizens Curriculum; a Careers Advancement Service; and new employment programmes for disabled people.”



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