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If lifelong learning is so good, why don’t more adults join in?

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Learning is good for your health, your wealth, your civic engagement, and for your family’s future prospects.  It prolongs your independent life and enriches your quality of life. Why then doesn’t everyone keep actively learning throughout their life?

This is a question of ever greater importance for policy makers given that we live in an ageing society. It is particularly pertinent to the UK where, according to the 2012 OECD Adult Skills Survey, young people’s literacy and numeracy performance is poor compared to many other countries, and compared with UK adults in their fifties or sixties. Important too because globalisation of trade and technological change are eroding the jobs people can do without strong literacy and numeracy skills, and because migration makes access to such jobs more competitive.

What affects adults’ propensity to learn

Research shows that the best single predictor of later participation is earlier participation. Helena Kennedy QC put it more graphically – for too many people “if at first you don’t succeed, you don’t succeed.”  The influences on people’s propensity to participate in learning in adult life are formed early.  This learning identity is shaped by a complex combination of:

  • family influence (which is particularly important)
  • the attitude to learning of the community you live in
  • how well you did at school
  • how long you stayed in education
  • the expectations made on you at work

Age matters, too. The propensity to participate declines with age and sharply amongst the oldest age groups. Perhaps surprisingly however, access to technology has only limited influence.

The result of this is that at work and in the wider community, the more learning a person does early in their life, the more likely they are to keep learning. And people with the weakest skills are the least likely to join in.

How to motivate learning in adults

There is nothing inevitable about this, but for adults motivation is a key part of the curriculum.  Adults are more open to learning at key moments of transition.  These include when they are:

  • getting or changing a job
  • preparing for parenthood and early parenting
  • seeking promotion
  • facing redundancy
  • seeing their children leaving home
  • divorcing
  • retiring
  • experiencing bereavement

For the government, turning that openness into participation relies on enabling access to good information and guidance, ensuring accessible and affordable provision, and recognising the different capacity of different groups to pay.  Programmes like family learning, where adults and children learn alongside each other, have lasting benefits for children and parents alike and are particularly successful.  So too are effective media campaigns linked to local provision.  Local learning cultures can be stimulated by initiatives like learning cities, where local government, educators, employers, health professionals, faith organisations and civil society bodies co-operate to make learning key to community development . Employers committed to developing their workforces have a role to play.  So, too, do non-government organisations, in reaching under-represented groups.

Learning leaks: when people do take up learning, the skills developed in one context are applied in others. Government should consider making policies that do not make too sharp a distinction between vocational and community based learning.

Going back to learning as an adult is challenging and exciting.  In an ageing society where adult skills are critical to social well-being and economic success, a key task for government is to help shift the culture. Government needs to help to make lifelong learning purposeful and a pleasure - as normal as going to the gym or the pub.

Read Alan Tuckett and John Field’s full evidence review or browse Foresight’s Future of skills and lifelong learning project webpage.

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