Navigate / search

Adult Access to Learning Opportunities: A Digest

In international discussions, it is conventional to subdivide the topic of adult and continuing education into three categories: formal, non-formal and informal adult and continuing education.  Thereafter, the definitions tend to differ in important ways.  A useful formulation gives the following content to the categories:

  • Formal: What is provided by the education and training system set up or sponsored by the state for the specific purpose of educating and training adults.
  • Non-formal: The learning and educational opportunities available to adults outside the formal system in agencies and contexts with primary objectives to which education and training are subordinate.
  • Informal: The lifelong process by which every person acquires and accumulates knowledge, skills and attitudes and insights from daily experience and exposure to the environment – at home, at work, and in leisure.
adult education

It is on this formulation that the following paper is based.  Policy concerns and discussions of practice in the United Kingdom, however, largely confine themselves to formal adult and continuing education.  There is an occasional nod towards, for example, the educational activities of some, easily recognized, non-formal agencies, and an unspoken presumption that informal adult learning is too unsystematic and too unstructured to be grasped.

That is not to say that there is coherence in policy and practice in formal adult and continuing education in the United Kingdom.  In fact, there is an absence of a clear and connected rationale for what goes on in the formal sector, and only unco-ordinated and isolated attempts to accumulate and to bring together the systematic knowledge from which such a rationale could be constructed.

Specific, targeted, funding can, of course, distort provision.  It is not necessarily so, but it can concentrate time, effort, innovation, and concern onto certain areas and topics to the neglect of others; it can encourage the cutting of corners, the taking of action on the basis of immediacy, slogan, and rhetoric.  Bad practice can be stimulated alongside good practice and neither evaluated.    Since the mid-1970s, all of this has happened in the United Kingdom at one level, the real level, of adult and continuing education.  But it is not the whole story.

In 1977, the government of the day set up a national body – the Advisory Council for Adult and Continuing Education (ACACE).  Interestingly, in its swansong Report in 1982 it recognized a great array of provision outside the formal sector and noted that ‘it is impossible to take any accurate assessment of the scale of educational activities undertaken… The main difficulty is to distinguish between directly edcuational and indirectly educative provision’; it called for ‘the creation of a comprehensive system of continuing education’ and for ‘a coherent national policy for the promotion of continuing education (to be)…drawn up and put into practice without delay’.

To subdivide practice and policy into ‘topics’, of course, may throw up barriers as well as cast them down.  It is a matter of definition of what is included for analysis and development, and what is excluded.  Concern about ‘access’ for adults to educational opportunities is one of the watchwords of British adult and continuing education in the mid to late 1980s.  Professional and quasi-professional associations have been formed to promote ‘access’; journals founded, conferences held, courses established.  Yet a Pandora’s box of aims, aspirations, concepts and values are mixed together in talk of ‘access’.


formal learning

Formal Learning

The usual conceptual model which underlies current observations and analysis on ‘access’ is that of ‘barriers’.  On the one hand are adults, on the other are formal learning opportunities of all kinds.  Only a minority of adults participate in these opportunities – usually they are adults who are advantaged on most social indicators.

Therefore, the model runs, there are barriers, external and internal, which prevent adults form participating in formal learning opportunities.  External barriers usually cited include physical (geographical; travel time; type of accomodation), financial (tuition fees; cost of books and equipment), structural (availability of appropriate courses and learning opportunities; availability of appropriate publicity; availability of guidance services).

Barriers interanl to the adult usually cited include motivation, attitudes, educaitonal preparedness, self-image and concept and perceptions of educators and of the value of learning.  For example, UDACE’s initial short discussion paper on access urged that ‘an accessible system would be perceived by its users (individuals, groups and employers) to be:

  • Appropriate to their needs as they see them
  • Attractive in form, approach, timing, and location
  • Able to compete on equal terms with other users of the time and money possible
  • Designed for ‘people like me’ (which will need to reflect many kinds of perception) of high quality
  • Competently delivered and capable of meeting its stated objectives comprehensible
  • With aims, objectives, and interrelationships between the parts clearly stated responsive
  • Capable of changing in the light of new, or newly expressed, needs’

A comprehensive national survey of adult participation in learning was undertaken by ACACE in 1980.  In a doorstep survey it asked a representative sample of almost two and a half thousand of the adult (17 years and over) population in England and Wales if they had ‘done any kind of study, learning, or practising part-time or full-time at work or elsewhere’ since leaving full-time education.  The question appears to have been unlikely to pick up non-formal or informal learning and likely to have emphasized work-related formal training.

We are left with the stark statistic from the ACACE survey that 53 per cent of the adult population reported that they had never participated in continuin education and training – a statistic which it is reasonable to associate with the formal sector.


Non-formal Learning

As long ago as 1963, a large survey of adult students in the United States found that (even setting adult independent learning on one side) more than half of the educational activities in which adults were involved took place outside the classroom setting.

Over ten per cent of the adult population at any one time may be involved in the activities of volntary organizations -organizations, which, broadly, may be defined as under the control of unpaid voluntary members, outside the statutory sector and not operating for commercial profit.

The recent study proposed a framework for the categorization of voluntary organisations which allocated them according to their ‘orientation’ (the cluster of objectives, motivations, and tendencies which brought organisations into existence and caused members to enrol).


Six ‘orientations’ constituted the framework:

  • Interest – pursuit of an interest, hobby or topic
  • Service – service of others
  • Advocacy – promotion of a cause
  • Social – meeting others
  • Vocational – job, or unemployment related
  • Community – concern for community or locality


The study found significant levels of ‘learning activity’ among adults in voluntary organizations (and these organisations varied in scope and size from national orgnaizations to little local clubs and societies).  But the findings were complex.  Adults may not be intending to learn, or realize that they are involved in ‘learning activity’; indeed, they may reject the notion, whatever their behaviour suggests.

There are variations between the types and frequency of ‘learning activity’ to be found in voluntary organizations with different orientations and ocmbinations of orientation.  There were hints in the study that workingclass people find voluntary organisations more accessible than evening classes; certainly elderly people are prominent in the voluntary sector.

Perhaps, more importantly, the study reported data which challenge some of the sacred cows and shibboleths of the formal sector of adult and continuing education.  It constructed an empirically-derived taxonomy of the ‘learning activities’ to be found among adutls in volutary organisations, of which the main constituents were:


Formal learning activities:

  • teaching
  • organized discussion
  • training
  • assessment and certification


Informal learning activities:

  • practice learning
  • apprenticeship learning
  • learning from experience
  • learning through social interaction


Voluntary organizations, it appears from the study, have more of a propensity towards being ‘learning democracies’.  The teacher role, where it exists, is demystified and deprofessionalized.  In certain circumstances, learners will become teachers.  Experienced and senior members will train and assess less experienced and junior members.  Yet it is just as frequent an occurrence for the less experienced to learn to less formal ways, even without the teacher-learner relationship being apparent through conventions or words.

In the study, junior members sat by, helped, queried, and were assisted by, senior members.  They tried, failed, and tried again.  They did, performed, acted, and their peers commented, drew on their experience, advised.  It seemed likely also that members learned by carrying out the tasks and roles which the organisation’s continued existence required: they took responsibility, spoke, sat on committees, organized, became officers.

Further, through the structure of roles and relationships which the life of the organization made available to them, it seemed possible to say that members had the opportunity for self-development. ‘They learned about other people’, some claimed – and this, being interpreted, means that they learned about themselves.

In crude quantitative terms, the numerical participation of adults in learning opportunities is significantly enhanced if one takes into account the extent of non-formal learning which is implied by the extrapolation of these findings.  However, the study also appeared to lead to qualitative, perhaps philosophical, conclusions.

Almost exclusively, adults – in both the formal and non-formal sectors – are volunteers, not conscripts, for learning.  By definition, then, learning has not only to be attractive and to seem worthwhile to them, it also has to reach out to them, both physically (time, place, cost, convenience) and mentally.  The latter may mean, from the evidence of the voluntary organizations’ study, in situations which are not hierarchical, are de-professionalized, and in which doing and experience are promoted, as ways of learning, over theorizing and verbalizing.

Since the late 1960s, the research of the Canadian, Lough, and his associates, into ‘adult independent learning’ has been replicated throughout the developed world, but has not occasioned much interest in the United Kingdom. Then have been a number of small-scale studies but none that have been carried through to implications for practice.

In brief, it has been shown by Tough and his followers to be the case that self-directed, or independent, learning among adults is a major phenomenon, involving most of the adult population. Indeed, it may be taken that it is almost a definition of an adult existence in Western society that self-directed learning continues throughout most of life. Such a view parallels the formulation by the humanistic psychologists for whom the human condition implies curiosity about the changing world around one, and the inner drive to learn the skills and knowledge necessary to adapt to shifting roles and circumstances.

Tough concluded that adults engage in many ‘learning projects’ throughout life. The definition of a learning project’ has nothing, necessarily, to do with attendance at a class or involvement in a group, in either the formal or non-formal sectors. Stemming from curiosity or the need for superior performance, learning projects are pieces of planned and intended learning defined by time duration. A learning project lasts for at least seven hours, but is made up of discontinuous learning episodes’. A ‘learning episode’ may last for anything from ten minutes to four hours, and is marked by ‘relatively uninterrupted’ primary intention to learn, to learn about, to learn how. The object of learning is not part of the definition; the learning might be of advanced Egyptology, how to mend a fuse, how to improve at a sport, or anything else.

Tough’s methodology is based chiefly upon lengthy face-to-face interviews in which the subject is led to reconstruct, through dialogue with the interviewee, past learning episodes and learning projects. The methodology has been questioned, especially for its small sample sizes and for doubts about its relevance to, and success with, blue-collar workers. Nevertheless, Tough’s findings are striking. Ninety per cent of adults engage in learning projects, he claims. The ‘median person’ conducts five distinct learning projects per year, and spends an average of one hundred hours on each learning project. In one study, Tough found that 73 per cent of learning projects were self-planned and only 17 per cent were planned by or with ‘professionals’, either in a group or one-to-one situation. However, it was also the case that in two thirds of the instances recalled, adults turned to ‘outside assistance’ during a project.

‘Acquaintances’ were called upon to assist much more often than ‘experts’ were.  If one leaves aside the questions about Tough’s methodology and the generalizability of his findings to the United Kingdom, some significant issues, nevertheless, remain.  The debate about liberal education needs to be matched up with his findings.  Are all objects of study of equal worth ?  Do some provide more cognitive perspective than others, do some feed curiosity, challenge, lead on to further stages of enquiry more easily than others do? Lying further back are yet more fundamental questions. What are the springs of human curiosity? What makes an adult liable to be ‘interested’ in one thing rather than another, and thus to undertake a learning project?

Adult educators have only partial and unproven answers to this latter question. They talk variously about the major change points in the life cycle, or about the experience of initial schooling, or about sub-cultural socialization, etc. Putting the two knotty problems together – if we were able satisfactorily to argue that some objects of study are intrinsically more worthwhile, then we would then wish to examine empirically which adults, and in what circumstances, are more likely to pursue them as self-directed learners, and why, and with what success.

An easier, or more immediate, course of debate and enquiry relates to the /facilitation of adult independent learning. Do adults in self-directed learning / projects take false steps, deviate into learning culs-de-sac, make mistakes, learn / unsuccessfully? It appears to be important that, if Tough is right, adults are j more likely to turn to friends, acquaintances, or peers for assistance than to experts and professionals (teachers, librarians). Yet significant resources are bound up in the formal and non-formal sectors, some of which could, perhaps, be extended, modified, or redirected towards supporting independent learners – perhaps through the provision of learning guides, learning resources, and learning centres accessible in the home or in the community. Thus, the phenomenon of independent learning touches upon the notion of open learning.

The lobby for widespread availability of educational guidance for adults has been gathering strength since the mid-1970s. Several sponsors have acted as midwife to it; the Open University was probably the first and, more recently, UDACE and the Manpower Services Commission the most effective.

Of course, an adult has to know that educational guidance is available, and under what conditions, before it becomes useful. An adult has to make the first approach, has to be aware of a need, has to be interested in learning opportunities before educational guidance units can be held to make a contribution to access. Although, in theory, guidance units should be able to make 1 available information and advice about learning opportunities in private and commercial adult education and in organizations in the non-formal sector, it is not likely that they will have such information comprehensively and systematically available.
Open learning

Open Learning

‘Open learning’ is certainly one of the powerful watchwords of the climate of opinion of British adult and continuing education in the 1980s. In the late 1970s, the Council for Educational Technology sought to popularize the term in order to encourage formal (and often traditional) institutions of further and adult education to become more liberal and to minimize the barriers which they placed between aspirant adult learners and themselves. Open learning might involve no more than improving marketing, running courses outside the institution or during the vacation, or putting some of the teaching into writing for out-of-class use. Or it might involve the sophisticated use of educational technology.

Thus location, timing, pace, and convenience of learning for adults could be made more accessible by use of distance learning materials, flexible learning packages, learning resource centres, telephone conferencing, and -as technology has developed in the 1980s – computer-based training, interactive video, and other systems. In the early 1980s, an amazing largesse of money, literally millions of pounds, was poured by the government’s Department of Employment and the Manpower Services Commission into what turned out to be a relatively restricted concept of open learning. The ‘Open Tech’ programme concentrated upon the production of written materials, local ‘delivery’ systems, and local resource centres for the upgrading and retraining of working adults at technician and sub-professional level.

After mixed success, the Manpower Services Commission transmuted the ‘Open Tech’ programme into its more broadly conceived ‘Open Learning’ programme. Alongside it, the so-called Open College (of the Air) began in 1987 with the intention of providing vocational training for employers and their employees through radio, television, and learning packages.

The success (for the adult learner) of these technology-based learning-packages, schemes, and systems of open learning depends crucially upon the quality of the materials. Some, hypothetically, can do more harm than good in terms of motivation and effective learning. Large set-up costs are involved in the writing of media-based learning packages; problems of inflexibility and difficulty of updating arise. There remain unanswered questions about the styles of learning and the attitudes to knowledge which learning packages can evoke in the adult learner – learning must be more than the uncritical acquisition of pre-digested information.

Clearly, though, notions of open learning relate significantly to the phenomenon of independent learning among adults discussed above, and to possibilities of access to learning outside the classroom and without obvious contact with an educational institution. Access to learning in the home, in the local community, whenever interest is fired, and whenever convenience allows, is bound to be crucially enhanced by the successful implementation of open learning concepts. It would, however, require immense resource and a fundamental re-orientation of the attitudes and experience of educators of adults to allow for that successful implementation.


Accreditation of prior learning

The acceptance into the received wisdom of adult and continuing education in the United Kingdom in the mid-1980s of the importance of the accreditation of prior adult learning, especially of prior experiential learning, is instructive. It has primarily been achieved through the writing and activities of one man (Norman Evans) and of the agencies in which he has worked (Policy Studies institute) and created (Learning from Experience Trust). The models and inspirations which he has used all derive from North American experience. In

This country acceptance has been largely at the theoretical and ‘policy’ level; there are so far only a few examples of good practice on which to build. Yet the contribution which ideas of the accreditation of adult prior experiential learning have to make to issues of access in the formal sector is potentially great. The simple thesis is that adults, during their lives both at work, and in the community and at home, have made significant learning gains in knowledge and skills through doing and experiencing.

Adults learn through experience as well as from courses of study. The links with the findings of the report on learning activity in voluntary organizations discussed above are evident. In formal courses of study adults may be asked to learn skills and knowledge which they have already gained from life experience; it is, therefore, logical to find ways of giving them credit for learning achieved through experience prior to the course. Thus, courses of study would be shortened and participation made a more attractive proposition.

The problem is to devise systematic and comprehensive systems of giving credit for experience which are both credible and cost-effective, and which students, educational institutions, and employers will find manageable and meaningful. Thus, ‘making-experience-count’ courses have been devised, through which adults have been helped to put together portfolios of the experiential learning gains which they have made throughout life, and which they could, if they wish, produce as evidence to convince admissions officers and employers. A significant spin-off has been the gains in self-confidence and in the construction of a positive self-image which such a process can begin.

These ideas are far from being fully proven and far from being embedded in the formal sector of adult learning. But they fit well with other notions of the value of giving to adults ‘credit’ for their learning.


Four things should be apparent from this paper:

  1. That current ‘developments’ in promoting access to learning opportunities for adults in the United Kingdom (as exemplified in the preceding section) are somewhat discontinuous, and based on semi-conceptualized models of access and incomplete theories of adult participation in learning
  2. That these ‘developments’, and most thinking about adult access to learning, relate to the formal learning sector
  3. That ‘developments’ and policy are planned in the absence of systematic research into most matters which are relevant to access and participation
  4. That certain sectors of society (for example working class, black) do not have, or do not use, access to most areas of formal learning. Other sectors (for example women, the elderly) do not have, or do not use, access to certain areas of formal learning. As far as we can tell, participation in learning activity in voluntary organizations and adult independent learning is more widespread, but there is much which needs confirming by research

In what has been described in this paper, there are indicators of a model of adult access to, and participation in, learning opportunities which might be relevant to more (if not most) of the adult population. The key is the concept of learning. Learning is not something which is confined to classrooms and available only at the hands of expert educators.

It takes place informally; it is often self-directed; it is a necessary adjunct of survival in complex civilized society; it is deprofessionalized and democratized in voluntary organizations; it is brought to the individual, the home, the community, by the concepts and technologies of ‘open-learning’ systems; it can be derived from life experience, and there are techniques for helping adults to systematize their learning from experience and, in so doing, to value it.

What follows, then, for professional adult educators and for institutions of further, adult, and higher education? They remain, and will remain, important gatekeepers of skills, resources, knowledge, buildings, equipment and, above all, of a commitment. The commitment is to a belief that learning is integral to a balanced and happy quality of life. In the United Kingdom, the commitment is often overlaid by enrolment numbers, reorganizations, salary grades, and careers but without it the whole complex superstructure is meaningless.

To serve only ten per cent of the adult population (and usually those already advantaged) at any one time, and only 50 per cent of the adult population ever, is a poor realization of that commitment. The broader notions of participation in learning, and the wide opportunities for access to it, with which this paper has been concerned, suggest lines of development which professional adult education in the United Kingdom could face with confidence, and which they would not exhaust until well into the next century.


This is a digest of Professor Keith Percy’s work on adult access to opportunities.  He was Director of the School of Lifelong Learning and Widening Participation at Lancaster University

(Adult Access to Learning Opportunities, Professor Keith Percy, Handbook of educational ideas and practices, 1989, ISBN: 0415020611; pp 296 to 313)


Leave a comment


email* (not published)