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Lifelong Learning - how can we support adults to learn?

Lifelong Learning Week (7th-11th November) is a celebration of the power of learning to transform people’s lives. Coordinated by Festival of Learning, it is a week of activity which aims to celebrate the benefits of lifelong learning and inspire more adults to learn.

As part of our celebration of Lifelong Learning Week, Alun Francis, Deputy Chair of the Social Mobility Commission and Principal and Chief Executive of Oldham College, talked to us about why lifelong learning is important, and what we can do to support adults to learn.


“I have spent the past twelve years working at Oldham College, where we are big fans of Lifelong Learning, and encourage people of all ages to keep on studying and learning.

Whatever their previous qualifications, it’s essential that people continue learning throughout their working lives in order to progress and succeed. Done well, lifelong learning benefits not only the learner, but their colleagues, employer and the wider community around them.

Lifelong Learning Week aims to raise the profile of lifelong learning, celebrate the difference learning can make, and inspire adults to take their first step back into learning. I’m delighted that the Social Mobility Commission is supporting Lifelong Learning Week, as I believe that extending high-quality learning and training opportunities to adults of all ages must play a central role in creating a society which works to match everyone to roles that they are both good at, and enjoy.

A traditional view of lifelong learning has focussed on adults gaining additional formal qualifications. However, this is not the only, or even necessarily the most effective, way of building skills.

The Oldham Economic Review, published in March 2022, found that the number of adults with no qualifications has fallen from around 20% in 2005 to around 10%, but that this had not always led to improvements in income or job progression. Qualifications can be life changing for people, but the content really does matter.

There is always room for learning for the sake of it, but it is also important that we deliver qualifications which genuinely improve skills and knowledge. Lifelong learning should equip adults with the practical skills to progress, and where this involves formal qualifications, we need to make sure that we focus on those which have real labour market value.

What is so valuable about Lifelong Learning Week is that it encourages people to think of learning more widely, in terms of in work training as well as academic qualifications.  It’s essential that we support people of any age to make informed choices about how to develop their individual talents in the most useful ways, and help everyone to find the pathways which give them real opportunities.

While it’s heartening to see a continued rise in the number of adults taking part in some sort of learning, it is still true that adults in lower socio-economic groups are twice as likely not to have undertaken any learning since leaving full-time education than those in higher socio-economic groups.

The Social Mobility Commission wants to highlight the work of employers in traditionally low paid sectors who are investing in the skills of their workforce, and providing valuable training opportunities to help their employees progress out of low pay. Lifelong Learning Week also recognises that employer investment is crucial for professional growth, and is celebrating those that are doing it well!

We are also currently working on a project to improve the information available about the labour market value of different qualifications, in order to help learners make more informed decisions, and help them better understand the link between qualifications and career progression.

Through this work we want to break out from a narrow focus on a small number of learning pathways, and highlight the many opportunities available throughout life to help people find and apply their skills.”


Do you have a workplace social mobility success story you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you if you might be willing to talk about it with us, and share it one our channels (social media, website, blog or at one of our upcoming masterclasses).