Friday, 4 January 2013

Older people’s learning in 2012: A survey

by Stephen McNair (NIACE)


This is the report of a survey of older people in Great Britain, carried out in spring 2012.1 It examined their learning: what they learned, where, when and why, and with what benefits. It also examined whether, and how far, current patterns might be changed.

This follows a similar survey in 2005, and reveals some significant changes since then,especially in the role of employment, in the location of learning, and the role of computing and online learning

The following key points emerge.

Who is learning?
  • Around one older person in five reports some form of learning in the last three years. This is unchanged since the 2005 survey, but what they are learning, where and why has changed markedly.
  • It is possible that the rise of independent online learning is adding an entirely new form of learning, and cohort of ‘learners’, which is masking an overall fall in traditional forms of learning.
  • Employment status is more influential than age itself in determining how likely people are to be ‘learners’, the subjects chosen, the reasons for learning, and the benefits achieved. As retirement patterns become more complex, age may become less relevant.
  • Social class, and the age at which an individual left initial education continue to have a major bearing on the likelihood of learning, and on what is learned, whereas the influence of gender is much less.
What are they learning?
  • Those learning for work-related reasons are younger, and come from a broader social range. The main subjects they study are health, social work, and occupational health and safety, and they are likely to report studying ‘to help in my current job’ or ‘to get a recognised qualification’.
  • Those learning for non-work-related reasons are most likely to be studying languages, arts, history and literature. They are most likely to report studying because of  ‘interest in the subject’, because ‘I enjoy learning’, or ‘to develop myself as a person’.
How do they benefit?
  • The benefits of learning are complex. Most older people report more than one kind of benefit.
  • Motivations to learn are not the same as benefits from learning. Many of the benefits reported do not match the motives which led older people to embark on learning.
  • The benefits of learning which older learners report most often are ‘passing on knowledge and skills to others’ (the most widely cited benefit), ‘to improve my chances of getting or retaining paid work’, ‘to help me get involved in society’, and ‘to help improve my health’. Significant minorities, especially among the older, also report ‘get involved in the digital world’, ‘manage my caring responsibilities’, and ‘coping with life crises’.
  • For the oldest groups, learning is important to enable them to remain socially engaged, and to maintain their health.
  • Almost two in five learners, particularly women, were aiming ‘to improve my self-confidence’, or ‘to develop myself as a person’. Unlike other motivations, this does not change with age.
Where do they learn?
  • The location of learning has changed significantly since 2005. The numbers of older people learning with the major public providers (further education [FE] colleges and universities) has fallen, and they are more likely to be learning in work-related settings, while the proportions learning in adult education centres has risen.
  • There has been a large growth in independent learning, both individually and in groups, and a marked growth in the numbers reporting learning online, even among the 75+ age group. Independent learners are older, more likely to be male, and better educated.
  • Employers pay for learning for about half of all older employees, and there is little sign that this is affected by the employee’s age, though full-time employees are more likely to benefit than part-timers.
How many ‘non-learners’ are there?
  • More than half of all older people say that nothing would make learning more attractive to them, and this rises to three quarters of those aged 75+. For those who might be persuaded, the relevance of the subject is more important than the traditional barriers of location, timing and cost.
  • The ‘non-learners’ most likely to be attracted into learning are more likely to be younger, female, and to have done some learning since school (but not in the last three years). They are most likely to be in social classes D and E.
Where would they find out about learning?
  • Most non-learners do not know where to go for advice about learning. For those who do, the internet is now the dominant source, followed by public libraries, attracting contrasting clienteles.
What are the policy implications?

The study suggests that the benefits to both individuals and society from older people’s learning are substantial. This suggests some priorities for public policy:
  • Strengthen the bridges between employment and retirement, to encourage the wide range of people who learn for work-related reasons to continue with learning in retirement.
  • Encourage people to recognise the learning which they do, and to see the potential benefits of extending this.
  • Support a wide range of learning opportunities, recognising that the social and personal benefits of learning are only loosely related to course titles and ostensible motivations.
  • Review the implications for social inclusion of the shift from public to private services.
  • Review the implications for social cohesion of the growth of individualised learning models.
What are the implications for future research?

The study also highlights some critical questions for future research:
  • The notion of ‘learning’ is problematic. Despite the clarification at the beginning of the survey, it is clear that many people interpret the term more narrowly than intended, and probably differently by social class. The arrival of online learning as a major new feature of the landscape appears to be changing how people think about learning, as well as how they do it.
  • The notion of social class is also problematic as society ages. The traditional model of social class, based on paid employment, can be misleading about the attitudes and expectations of people a decade after retirement, and about people who are phasing into retirement through transitional jobs.
  • The nature of independent, self-organised, and online learning is not well understood. Its growth might indicate a decline in the social benefits of learning, which are reported by significant numbers of older people, and especially the oldest. Its relationship to the growth of the University of the Third Age (U3A) also requires further study.
A representative sample of 4,601 people over 50.

Full text (PDF 54pp)

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