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EPALE - Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe


Working Together to Raise Adult Participation in Learning

by Fiona Aldridge
Language: EN
Document available also in: BG

2020 has been a powerful reminder of the connectedness of countries across the world. It has also highlighted the vital importance of working together and learning from another if we are to successfully tackle our common challenges.

While COVID-19 is primarily a public health crisis, the response of governments across the world has also created wider economic and societal challenges – with falling economic growth, rising unemployment, widening educational inequalities and greater social isolation.

While there is no easy solution to the challenges ahead, the growing body of evidence on the benefits of adult learning suggests that it has an important role to play in ensuring future prosperity, social inclusion and improved health and well-being. Perhaps now more than ever.


2019 Adult Participation in Learning survey

An excerpt from the Learning and Work Institute's 2019 Adult Participation in Learning annual UK survey that reads "2019 has the lowest participation rate in survey history: 33%"Yet in the UK, participation in adult learning is declining. For over 20 years, Learning and Work Institute has undertaken an annual survey of adult participation in learning, drawing on a national representative sample of 5,000 adults across the UK to provide a rich evidence base on who participates in learning, their motivations, and any barriers and benefits experienced. Our 2019 survey showed a participation rate of just 33%, the lowest in two decades. The survey also highlighted significant variations across UK nations and English regions, as well as deep inequalities in access to learning, with those who could benefit most from taking part, being least likely to do so.


You can explore data from across the survey series in these interactive charts.

A chart from the Learning and Work Institute's 2019 Adult Participation in Learning annual UK survey that is titled "Figure 6: Recent participation by country and region"


Understanding the impact of COVID-19 on adult learning

If we are to reverse the decline in participation and tackle persistent inequalities, then it is vital that we have a better understanding of adults’ motivations for learning, the barriers they face, and the factors influencing their decision to participate.

As part of the UK EAAL programme, Learning and Work Institute will be harnessing its 2020 survey to better understand the impact of COVID-19 on adult learning. We will be looking at how economic and public health uncertainties have affected adults’ decisions to learn, and whether the rapid move to online provision has made learning more accessible or created further barriers to participation. We will explore whether lockdown provided time and opportunity to learn new things, and whether greater involvement in supporting their children’s education stimulated parents to think about their own.


On the back of the survey, we will also be working with partners in each of the four UK nations to undertake a series of ‘deep dives’ into the issues and opportunities facing particular groups of adults currently under-represented in learning – with a view to better understanding together how we can develop policy and practice to ensure that more adults have opportunities to learn. Importantly too, we explore how each of the four nations currently capture data about participation in adult learning and how this is used to inform lifelong learning policy and strategy. 

Survey fieldwork begins this week. We look forward to sharing our findings with national and international partners over the months, so that together we might better understand how to both increase and widen access to learning and ensure that all adults are well equipped to face whatever the coming months and years might bring.



Institute for Learning and Work, Learning and Work | Sefydliad Dysgu a Gwaith, Scotland's Learning Partnership, Forum for Adult Learning NI, Ecorys, Co-funded by the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union


About the author

A photo of Fiona Aldridge with the Learning and Work Institute logo behind her.


Fiona Aldridge is director for policy and research at Learning and Work Institute an independent policy, research and development organisation dedicated to lifelong learning, full employment and inclusion in the UK. Fiona is responsible for leading L&W’s programme of research and development, and ensuring that its work influences policy and practice by providing a credible and influential voice on learning, skills and employment. Fiona has more than 20 years’ experience in the adult learning and skills sector, during which time she has managed L&W’s series of surveys on adult participation in learning.




This blog is part of the Learning and Work Institute's 2020 collection of blogs and comments from UK adult educators involved in the European Agenda for Adult Learning programme. If you would like to get involved please contact Mark Ravenhall or Joyce Black.


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  • JohnPaul Donaghy's picture
    Look forward to engaging in this work. A key issue seems to me to be the need for the necessary infrastructure to be in place to encourage adults into learning, as many have had poor previous experiences. Within the Republic of Ireland the etb (Education Training Boards) have such a role and in England there are adult learning/training budgets, much of which have now been devolved to cities as part of city deals. Within N. Ireland however much of the infrastructure has been dismantled. Organisations like the WEA, the Educational Guidance Service for Adults, the Health Service widening participation unit no longer exist, so there are N. I. Specific systemic infrastructure issues which I suspect make it more difficult to address the issues of increasing participation. If our upcoming N.I. Skills strategy is to prioritise lifelong learning culture then these systemic issues need addressed. So whose job it is to promote and fund increased participation is central to impact. I hope the deep dives may help inform decisions about the need for an appropriate infrastructure within N.I. to support increased and widened participation.
  • Marija Elena Borg's picture
    Looking forward to reading through your findings once these are officially shared. I believe that it is imperative for all countries and communities to thoroughly understand how the current economic and public health uncertainties are affecting adults’ willingness to learn.