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Workplace learning: adult learner surveys reveal continuing inequalities

November 1, 2012

Recently two surveys have been published about participation in adult learning, one by NIACE and one by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills – the National Adult Learner Survey (NALS). They use different time frames; NALS reports field work done in 2010 (the previous one was 2005) and that by NIACE is the most recent (2012) of a series of annual surveys stretching back nearly 20 years. Much of the valuable comment so far has been about the downward trends in participation shown by both surveys; NALS suggesting that the fall is greatest in low income households.
There is a lot of use in both surveys but here I want to focus on workplace learning and draw out some of the consequences for adult educators and trade union partners. Both surveys reveal serious inequalities that are not new but still demanding of our interest and attention.
The workplace remains of great importance in adult learning as a place and context for learning and as a source of motivation for learners. Participation in adult learning is higher amongst those in employment, or seeking employment, than those outside the labour market and nearly 80% of learners say they took up their learning for ‘work or career reasons’ (NIACE survey, pages 5 and 8).
However, once in work, participation follows a familiar pattern. Those in managerial, professional or administrative occupations (AB) are twice as likely as manual workers (DE) to be on a training course at work and more than four times as likely to attend an external training course provided by their employer. The picture for ‘on the job training’ is more evenly spread so no surprises there! (NIACE survey, page 14) As experience of learning is the best predictor of future intentions, this pattern is likely to continue.
How do we explain this? Money and time are invariably the two main barriers to learning (NALS pages 62-63); asked to list the main things that would prevent them taking part in (more) learning and training, 58% of respondents said cost/too expensive and 42% said ‘I don’t have the time’. Incidentally cost has become much more significant in the period since the last (2005) NALS survey.
Employers’ practices vary in how far they support staff in overcoming these barriers. NIACE found, for instance, that 29% of respondents said that their employer provided ‘financial support to pay fees’ and the same proportion received time off to learn. In all just under 70% of employers provided some sort of support leaving 31% of respondents to say ‘My employer does not offer any support for learning.’ (NIACE p 25).
However the distribution of this support varies according to a number of factors, most notably social class. NIACE sums this up ‘ABs (managerial, professional or administrative occupations) were significantly more likely than adults in any other socio-economic class to receive financial support from their employer for learning; to be able to take time off to learn; to have opportunity to put learning into practice within the workplace; and to have opportunities to discuss their learning within an appraisal or review process. ‘(p 26) Similarly NALS says that employers are more likely to meet the cost (of training) for more qualified rather than less qualified workers (p 40).

So to sum up: participation in workplace learning is declining; where employers do support learning the least well qualified and lower paid benefit the least and a significant minority of employers offer no support at all.  At the same time the commitment of many employees to learning shines through. Many make do with a small amount of support or, in some cases, none at all. To me this confirms the importance of learning as part of the collective bargaining agenda underlining the valuable work of union learning reps, TUC Unionlearn and, of course, UNISON’s pioneering Return to Learn and related programmes.

It is significant too what respondents say would encourage them to participate: NALS respondents across the age range rated ‘to learn something new’ the most important factor (NALS p 66) ahead of more instrumental outcomes. The most commonly cited factor that would make adults more likely to take up learning was ‘if the learning was related to something I’m interested in’ (NIACE p19).  It’s also true that many express uncertainty: ‘…adults with Level 1 or no qualifications are significantly more likely than average to say they lack confidence and do not know what courses are available and/or right for them.’ (NALS p 63)

This casts a shadow over the last Government’s insistent prioritisation of  qualification bearing courses, particularly the ‘full level 2’, at the expense of other provision that may be particularly effective at engaging people, providing a first step and helping students think through their future direction. NALS confirms this shift: from 2005 to 2010 participation in qualification bearing courses (formal learning) held up but that in ‘non-formal learning(that is structured provision that does not lead to a recognised qualification) fell substantially. Whereas in 2005 56% of the sample had participated in non-formal learning in the previous three years, this reduced to 39% in 2010. John Field highlights this as part of a ‘policy failure’ in his excellent blog on NALS http://thelearningprofessor.wordpress.com/

The overall picture is admittedly not encouraging but there are opportunities to build on the interest of employees and find ways to develop workplace learning that are relevant and challenging but also achievable. No-one can afford an adult learning ‘lost decade’.

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One Comment
  1. Excellent analysis Pete. Many challenges for workplace learning and even more for people who aren’t in paid employment.

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