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What role should adult learning have in supporting social inclusion?

by Barbora Pavelková
Jazyk: CS
Document available also in: EN FR DE IT PL BG


There is often an assumption that adult learning can be all things to all people, that it can play a role that encompasses skills development for employment, re-skilling to face changing economic contexts, and enhancing social inclusion.  The Council of the European Union’s Resolution on a renewed European agenda for adult learning covers all these aspects in noting that:

“Adult learning provides a means of up-skilling or reskilling those affected by unemployment, restructuring and career transitions, as well as makes an important contribution to social inclusion, active citizenship and personal development.”

Can adult learning be all things to all people?

While adult learning can do all of these things, it is arguably more accurate to accept that the goals of learning for employment, learning for re-skilling, and learning to promote social inclusion often require very different approaches. These objectives or ‘hopes’ for adult learning can also sometimes be contradictory. This raises an age old source of debate: what is adult learning for, or perhaps, what should adult learning be for?

Employability or social inclusion? Or both?

This debate on the purpose and focus of adult learning is particularly crucial where promoting social inclusion is concerned. While it maybe good for the economy, adopting a policy approach focused on using adult learning to promote employability and economic competitiveness does not necessarily support social inclusion. Certainly, such an approach can help inclusion through promoting employment as a route out of poverty.

However, it equally has the potential to squeeze learning as a driver for promoting social inclusion in a wider sense to the margins, particularly in terms of the most disadvantaged groups. Not all learners, particularly those facing severe exclusion, marginalisation and disadvantage, are ready for job-related training. For some, engaging in learning is a significant step as well as a daunting challenge. Nonetheless, such involvement can play a vital role in ‘re-connecting’ individuals through social and community engagement, hence reducing exclusion and isolation. It thus has a clear value whether or not this leads to formal qualifications or, for example, progression towards work.

Maintaining a balanced focus

It seems important to acknowledge that, while adult learning can support both economic / employment and social inclusion objectives, depending on its focus it may not always achieve these twin goals. There is arguably a need to ensure that learning simply as a route into interacting with other people, or playing a more active role in communities, is not lost in times of austerity and economic challenge. Doing so may not be easy, but there are ways of promoting such wider objectives, along with ensuring accessibility for all groups no matter what their motivations for participating are.

Funding community-based learning approaches and networks is one such option in the context of limited resources, providing that policy backing, political will and at least some start-up and ongoing financial support is available. Promising examples of such approaches include  the ‘Community Learning Trusts’ recently launched in the UK, with early evidence suggesting that the approach can be successful in meeting the needs of adult learners, particularly those facing disadvantage.  

Innovative and novel approaches are doubtless being taken forward elsewhere and it would be great to hear about these. For now though, it seems enough to reflect that, while the goals of adult learning can vary, policy makers and funders need to avoid only focussing on one set of objectives to the exclusion of others.


Ian Atkinson is Associate Director at Ecorys UK, where he leads on employment and labour markets policy and research work. His research background and interests include employability interventions, social inclusion and results-based payment mechanisms.

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  • Obrázek uživatele Andrew McCoshan
    Thanks for raising the topic of community-based learning, Ian. This touches on a whole raft of interesting issues. As you say, engaging the disenfranchised in formal learning opportunities is an important part of any package. But I wonder to what extent we have seen attempts to move beyond this, where community-based learning becomes community-owned learning? There is something of a twin issue for people who have under-achieved in formal education for not only do they frequently feel uncomfortable in such environments but they–like the world around them–tends to undervalue other forms of learning. Moving towards community-owned learning could make it possible for people from disadvantaged backgrounds to start to value their own experiential and life-wide learning and to have it endorsed in their own communities. This is not to say we can do without the professionals, of course, but it raises the issue of how individuals and professionals relate to one another. What are the possibilities for co-creation of adult learning opportunities?
  • Obrázek uživatele Ian Atkinson
    Thanks Andrew, a raft of really interesting thoughts and questions in there! Certainly there are some good examples of what might be termed community-owned learning, though it seems they can often be very small scale and sometimes short lived. I think another interesting aspect to this is the degree to which 'communities of interest', as opposed to geographical communities, can play such a role in developing learning opportunities or indeed 'learning communities'. There is certainly a strong history of such approaches, often through Workers Educational Associations, trade unions and other civil society groupings. This perhaps blurs the lines of co-creation and the professional / non-professional distinction a bit, but also I suspect offers some useful examples of practice and the benefits of such approaches. Certainly I'd be interested to hear of any examples / developments in this area from EPALE readers....
  • Obrázek uživatele Aaron Rajania

    ps. on studies that have measured wellbeing to participation in several types of learning, please see the following as one example:

  • Obrázek uživatele Aaron Rajania

    An interesting blog. Certainly I agree that funding for adult learning focused purely on 'inclusion' within the UK has been significantly reduced in recent years. However, a number of studies have demonstrated the value of non-vocational relatively informal types of learning (such as music/arts groups and evening classes) in increasing well-being, rather than formal, more vocationally-oriented, 'employability-type' education and training courses. One theory could be that 'employability' training brings most benefits only when it leads to employment or promotion. Participation in non-vocational learning activities, on the other hand, would be more likely to be undertaken because of their intrinsic enjoyment or for the opportunity to get out and socialise. This, in my view does not make them less worthwhile. What might be interesting is to examine whether those countries who have seen increases in the participation rates of adults in education also continue to provide opportunities for a variety of learners to benefit from courses aimed at social inclusion, as well as improving skills and employability.

  • Obrázek uživatele Ian Atkinson

    Thanks Aaron, some useful reflections there. I agree that there are different reasons, drivers, and intended outcomes from different forms of learning. What I suspect is important is not simply conflating these or uncritically treating them as interchangable. Some forms of learning can help with employability / skills development and additionally provide participants with 'intrinsic enjoyment' and / or greater inclusion / socialising with others - this I guess may be the ideal but is certainly not always achievable. As noted there is probably a need for balance at different levels - in setting policies for adult learning, in ensuring funding is available for different forms of learning, and in making sure such forms are availabile and accessible.