Today the Social Mobility Commission (SMC) released their latest State of the Nation report, warning that social mobility in the UK is virtually stagnant. A flourishing system of lifelong learning can be a key driver of social mobility, ensuring people can continue to upskill throughout their working lives and reach their potential. For many, participating in adult education will mean taking up learning in the margins of the working day, including at ‘night school’. However, new analysis from the Centre for Progressive Policy and the Association of Colleges – published in the SMC’s report – has uncovered a dramatic decline in adult participation in part-time learning.
Between 2015/16 and 2017/18 there has been a 43% fall in part time adult learners in England. The dramatic fall in part time participation in adult learning should set alarm bells ringing across the sector, especially given the anticipated rise in disruption of the labour market and the well-established value of adult learning. For those out of work, adult learning is a key route into the labour market. For those already in work, the value of new skills in terms of wage premiums and in work progression – in addition to the wider individual benefits of learning – has been shown across a number of studies. For businesses and the wider economy, the benefit of an agile, skilled workforce able to quickly respond to global trends is clear. With more disruption to the labour market anticipated and social mobility continuing to stall, the imperative to maintain access to adult learning will only increase.
What is driving this sharp drop in numbers? Do workers not understand the need, or can they not access the part time courses they want? As the Association of Colleges points out, demand is higher than ever, but the effects of tightening financial constraints on supply cannot be ignored. Between 2010/11 and 2015/16 adult skills budget funding has been cut by 34% in real terms. Part time learning can often be more costly to deliver, and so learning providers have been forced to scale down provision in efforts to adjust to the new funding reality. Part time and evening courses often have smaller class sizes and require out of normal hours teaching, which can make them costlier to deliver. Alastair da Costa, SMC commissioner and chair of Capital City Group, reiterates the negative impact this is having on access to further learning, arguing that ‘Consistent budget cuts have made it more difficult to provide opportunities for everyone.’
The funding of part time learning has also changed significantly. There has been a significant fall in the number of fully funded and co-funded part time adult learners. Though the number of people taking on advanced learner loans to fund their own part-time learning is going up, it is a fraction of what is required to reverse the decline in fully and part funded learners. The evidence, therefore, suggests that individuals lack the willingness and resources to step into the funding gap vacated by government.
The government’s National Retraining Scheme (NRS), due to begin its roll out this year, is designed to engage workers at risk of displacement in training to enable them to move into new jobs. It is to the government’s credit that it has identified the importance of retraining. Our analysis demonstrates the scale of the challenge the scheme faces to reverse the decline in adult learning. We look forward to hearing how the £100m scheme will help redress this, although there still remains a significant funding shortfall.
Even a sufficiently funded NRS would tackle only part of the problem. We need an adult skills system that engenders a culture of lifelong learning for all, not just those facing redundancy. This includes adults in low-paid yet secure work who require training to move up the ladder to higher paid work. It also includes those that need training to enter into the labour market in the first place. If left unaddressed, the fall in part time learning will prove to be a significant barrier not only to preventing unemployment in the future but also to solving the productivity puzzle, kickstarting social mobility and, ultimately, driving inclusive growth.
 Association of Colleges and Centre for Progressive Policy analysis of the MiDES Individualised Learner Record