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Barriers to education: more than age and gender

This section presents evidence to show that adults face a wide range of barriers, which impact on them taking part in learning.
I returned to education after two changing-life events. The first, getting divorced, has allowed me to create a new life and changed my career path from working in a supermarket to going to college, getting health and social level 3, and becoming a support worker. Another event in 2014 meant that I had to leave my job and home town; after recovering I could have just stayed at home and taken the victim status, but I wanted to be a survivor. I had an interest in social justice and policy and saw an extended degree at York that looked perfect. I applied, not ever thinking I would be accepted… but I was.
I have now created the me I want to be for once in my life. This is for me and I can tell you, if I can do it, you can, and in creating my new identity I am so proud of me. University is my rock. Returning to education can be a daunting thought.
I have PTSD and anxiety and I thought that this would hinder my time within University as it is an illness that you cannot say when you might experience the symptoms - it can sometimes affect me at the worst times such as in a seminar or during essay periods but there is support from Disability services and Open Door, who offer confidential support to help me with personal or academic needs, such as different formats of assessment like exams or presentations. University tailors your support plan around your needs not theirs. There is always someone there to help and for me, that is 100%.
Just because your illness may not be visible doesn’t mean it’s not there and it should never hinder you in what you want to achieve. University gives you so many chances for different experiences. I have become a student buddy, someone who is always there to answer questions and meet for coffee before you come to University and to help you in the right direction with support. I have become interested in widening participation and have been a part time job within the careers department who are there to help you with careers advice and just to talk to.
I wanted to gain the whole University experience as well as study - with the encouragement of staff within university and the freedom to take part in what I want to, if you are not sure, there is always someone who will go with you so that you can just give it a go. I have never felt out of place within University, quite the opposite. The younger students look to you for life stories and they help me with technology - we all go out together and I think they have found out that mature students can be young at heart. I have been out of education for 30 years and learning has changed since just using pen and paper, but you adapt.
The workload you have each year is a lot, but you get it done. I find it a challenge that I can prove to myself just what I can do, and I have. And you are never alone - we help each other, encourage and support one another right through the course - it’s true that you make lifelong friends here from all over the world!

As Gail shares in the video, there are often a number of barriers preventing learners from engaging… but that none of these need be permanent obstacles.

Cross (1981) presents evidence to show that adults face a wide range of barriers, which impact on them taking part in learning.

These barriers are:

  • Situational barriers: arising from an adult’s personal and family situation, such as time pressures and financial constraints.

  • Institutional barriers: arising from the unresponsiveness of educational institutions or a lack of flexibility in the provision on offer, such as inappropriate scheduling or content of provision.

  • Dispositional barriers: relating to the attitudes, perceptions and expectations of adults, such as believing that they are too old to learn or lacking confidence or interest.

In a 2017 Participation Survey, results from adults who had not taken part in learning for at least three years were gathered and categorised into the three types of barriers:

  • Situational barriers are more likely to be working part-time, women, have higher level qualifications, and are less likely to experience multiple disadvantage in employment.
  • Institutional barriers are most likely to be women and individuals furthest from employment.
  • Dispositional barriers are most likely to be unemployed people, including those seeking work and those who are not, and adults who have a higher index on the index of multiple disadvantage in employment. Tuckett & Field. (2016).

These results highlight the need to address a range of barriers and consider demographics when working to engage potential adults in learning.

Linked to the results of this survey, there is a range of evidence that identifies the group characteristics that create potential barriers to accessing education The more factors an individual experiences, the less likely they are to feel like they belong in education:

  • Parental experiences of learning: Those, whose parents have not shown interest in their earlier educational experience are less likely to engage in learning later in life; overall development and reading improvement are also impacted. This affect becomes cross-generational

  • Initial experiences of education: Adults who have not had previous successes in education are not likely to continue or return to education.

  • Age: Results in the 2017 Participation Survey show that learning declines with age, even though we are generally living and working longer. There was a report in a 9 percentage point decline in those of 45 years or above taking up learning from the same survey conducted two years previously (2015).

  • Social Class: Continues to be the strongest measure of participating in learning (Savage 2015).

Factors such as occupation, parental education level, income and level of qualification, all sit within the social class group, and demonstrate a correlation between socio-economic status and engagement in learning; those in the higher levels being twice as likely to engage in learning than those in the lower levels of socio-economic status.

  • Connection to the labour market: Those who are employed, even in low-skilled, or being registered as unemployed but looking for work, are more likely to be able to access learning opportunities than those who those who are not connected to the job market at all according to Schuller and Watson (2009). Work is important as it offers opportunities and motivation for learning to take place.

  • Gender: Schuller and Watson (2009) also found that both men and women who do well in formal education, are more likely to become adult learners. Although more young women engage in adult learning than men, there is more of an equal rate by the time we reach 50 years of age. The 2017 Participation Survey reported that 39% of women and 35% of men were engaged in learning.

  • Ethnicity: The NIACE (2008) Briefing on participation in learning by adults from minority ethnic groups highlighted the significant difference between those learners from White or Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds. The 2017 Participation Survey also found this to be the case; BAME backgrounds were more likely to engage in learning (48%) than White backgrounds (35%). It must be acknowledged though that mixing ethnicities together in BAME did not separate out the higher rates of engagement from Black African backgrounds than those of Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds.

  • Disability or learning difficulty: People with a disability are not only less likely to engage in education, they are less likely to have a place in the labour market. Mobility issues and lack of understanding can create access barriers in learning environments, as well as possible negative experiences in compulsory education. Those who experience these factors are less likely to re-engage in adult education according to NIACE. (2012). Adult Participation in Learning Survey.

  • Being a ‘slower adapter to technological advances’: Many mature learners are slower at adapting to new technology and this holds them back in learning. However, it isn’t just mature learners who are disadvantaged in the technological world. Younger learners, people living in social housing, with lower income, or those unemployed sit alongside those with disabilities who struggle to access the benefits of technology. Those who live rurally or in travelling communities, homeless, those young people who are not in education, employment or training, and those who have no access to public funding are also amongst those individuals for whom technology is a barrier to learning according to NIACE. (2012) and Tuckett & Field. (2016).


Learning and Work Institute. (2018). Adult Participation in Learning Survey 2017

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