What are the barriers to adult learning?

Last month the Learning and Work Institute released the findings from their Adult Participation in Learning Survey 2017.

The survey, which was funded by the Department for Education (DfE) asked 5,000 adults aged 17 and over across the UK about their participation in learning, particularly their motivations to learn, barriers which prevent them from pursuing learning, and the benefits they had experienced after their learning experience.

Learning has positive benefits for individuals, communities and the wider economy. Increasing and widening access to learning is crucial to future prosperity, fairness and social inclusion in the UK. Despite the strength of this evidence, the UK has seen a recent decline in the number of adults participating in learning and training. If we are to engage more adults in learning, it is vital that we understand patterns of behaviour, and adults’ motivations and their barriers to their engagement.” p. 5

What did the survey find?

  • Women had a significantly higher rate of participation in learning compared to men
  • Those from higher social grades are much more likely to participate in learning than those from lower social grades
  • Those from black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds are significantly more likely to be participating in learning than those from white backgrounds
  • Those who left full-time education at 16 or under were the least likely to be participating in learning
  • Those who remained in education until at least the age of 21 were the most likely to be participating in learning
  • Those who have higher levels of disadvantage in employment are less likely to participate in learning
  • Those who live in areas that have the highest levels of multiple deprivation are less likely to participate in learning
  • 40% of those surveyed said they had an intention to learn in the next three years, whereas 43% said they were very likely to take part in learning, and 15% said they were fairly likely to do so

The research then goes on to break down the motivations for, barriers to, and benefits of learning for those who responded to the survey.


The findings showed that the majority of learners (75%) started their main learning for their career or for work. Only 24% started learning as part of leisure activities or for personal interest.

The reasons those who responded to the survey gave for taking part in learning were:

  • To develop themselves as a person (27%)
  • To help improve in their job (27%)
  • Due to an interest in the subject (26%)
  • To get a recognised qualification (24%)
  • Because they enjoy it (22%)

The places learners took up their learning included work-related learning (55%) and independent of the workplace (41%). Some attended a formal educational establishment (34%) and others were learning through a community or voluntary organisation (6%).

This indicated that provision should be flexible to adults’ lives and be offered in the workplace and remotely (for example through online learning), as well as through formal education institutions.” p. 7

The range of subjects adults are learning is vast and includes:

  • Health and science
  • Digital
  • Computer skills and IT
  • Business and administrative
  • Creative and design
  • Childcare and education

Around 67% of people’s main learning leads to a qualification.

Barriers to learning

Overall, the barrier to learning most frequently identified by survey respondents, regardless of their learning status, was work or other time pressures. While current/recent learners cite other situational barriers, such as cost and childcare or caring responsibilities, adults who have not been learning for at least three years were more likely to cite dispositional barriers, such as feeling too old and lack of interest.” p. 7

The barriers to learning uncovered by the survey are nothing new and vary from time constraints to potential learners feeling that they are not capable.

The first step to improving opportunities for potential learners is to make learning flexible. As the research explains, one way to achieve this is to provide access to learning online which allows learners to control their learning experience and work to their own schedule.

Online learning has opened up a world of opportunities for adults to participate in learning which may not have been available to them previously due to proximity or time constraints. However, the support available for learners before, during, and after learning is an integral part of the learning experience. Learners need to feel that they are capable and online programmes need to be accessible for those who don’t have previous experience with digital learning.

Work and learning go hand-in-hand, and those in the workplace need to be continuously encouraged to engaged with learning by their workplace, and those outside the workplace can build their confidence through learning so that they can enter into a job role with a sense of accomplishment and pride.

Finding these opportunities, access, and funding are all barriers learners continue to face.

Benefits of learning

Learning as an adult can have significant benefits for individuals, including those related to health, employment, and social life and community. The most common benefits cited by learners were improvement in knowledge of the subject; improved skills related to their job; self-confidence; increased confidence at work; and enjoying learning more.” p. 8

We pride ourselves on our mission statement: Skills, knowledge, and confidence delivered online.

Our team of education experts are proud to create teaching and learning resources as well as training courses in the hope to engage and upskill learners, but it is also important to us that learners feel they have invested in their personal development and finish a training course with additional confidence.

The continuing development of skills and knowledge is the true benefit of adult learning as it builds confidence while also giving learners the skills to continue to invest in themselves in whichever way they choose.

We have been working with apprentices and adult learners for over ten years and seeing or hearing the pride exuded by our learners who have achieved something they never considered possible is what makes being part of the education sector so rewarding. Some learners who initially dreaded the thought of starting a qualification or course have gone on to be the ones who continue to register for new learning years later, and have quickly become the best possible ambassadors for adult learning.

Find out more about our Laser Lessons and Laser Short courses.