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Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe



What makes adult learning policies successful?

by Andrew McCoshan
Language: EN
Document available also in: ET

/epale/en/file/adult-learning-policy-epaleAdult learning policy EPALE

Adult learning policy EPALE


Andrew McCoshan reviews a new report from the European Commission: An in-depth analysis of adult learning policies and their effectiveness in Europe” by ICF Consulting Services Limited.

A recent report commissioned by the European Commission makes essential reading for anyone interested in how to improve the success of adult learning policies. The report identifies the factors that enable adult learning policies to be effective and develops a tool to help both the Commission and Member States of the EU to plot progress.

From a review of the literature and an in-depth examination of policy implementation in 10 countries, the report identifies six key “building blocks for successful adult learning policies":

  • Encouraging in adults a positive disposition to learning through “structural" measures such as guidance and the involvement of social partners
  • Increasing investment by employers in learning owing to the important role played by work-related learning
  • Improving access for all, particularly through engaging disadvantaged groups
  • Delivering learning that is relevant to employers and learners
  • Delivering high-quality learning
  • Coordinating the implementation of lifelong learning policies involving all relevant stakeholders.

Reviewing these factors, the report notes that there are two critical weaknesses in particular: poor access to adult learning and the tackling of low adult basic skills. Indeed, the report finds that every country faces challenges in improving equity of access and this severely inhibits the ability of adult learning policies to have “systemic impact".

In addition, the report draws attention to the considerable disadvantages that flow from the poor state of development of monitoring and evaluation systems. The report argues that adult learning policy could be made “significantly more effective" through more systematic collection of data and more rigorous evaluation. The analytical framework proposed by the report is designed to assist policymakers to analyse their policies. An online tool is also being developed to assist policymakers to use the framework.

The factors identified in the report are readily familiar ones, as might be expected, so the added value of the report lies more in providing a comprehensive and holistic way of looking at the problem and packaging it within a useful conceptual framework. It is also valuable in distilling the many factors into just six and therefore in helping to focus our thinking. I found the use of graphics especially helpful–the type of thing that can be printed out and stuck on the wall next to your computer as a handy reference.

The report is useful also in stimulating further questions. For example, it argues that the “building blocks” approach is key since “policy actions may not always follow a logical sequence". Indeed, sadly individual building blocks may come and go according to the flow of democratic politics, so the question of sustainability is also important to consider.

I wonder how many building blocks need to be in place, and which ones, to start to make a measurable improvement in indicators like participation? As the report points out, we currently lack the monitoring and evaluation information we need in order to answer such a question, but I wonder what experiences readers of this blog may have had. Action in all six areas simultaneously may well be difficult in most countries, so I also wonder which factors you might prioritise?

And I also ask this: since many of the factors are almost self-evident in terms of their benefits, what prevents them being put in place and/or being successful? Money? The intractable nature of some topics? Implementation difficulties? Maybe you have some answers from your own country?

Andrew McCoshan has worked in education and training for over 20 years. For the last 10 years he has specialised in policy development studies and evaluations for the EU, and before that was a consultant in the UK. Andrew is currently a freelance consultant, an Associate with the UK Higher Education Academy, an ECVET Expert for the UK, and a Member of the UK Education & Employers Taskforce Research Group.

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  • Simon BROEK's picture

    Dear Andrew, I found the report an interesting read and it is indeed not surprising that many of the issues mentioned sound familiar (as the report is based on a literature review). It provides a checklist for policy makers on how they could improve their adult learning policy.

    I especially liked the emphasis on the individual disposition to learning: "Building a positive disposition towards learning among individual learners is important in promoting participation and retention in learning.  The evidence suggests that this is not motivated by direct financial incentives to adults but is facilitated by structural features of the adult learning system, such as guidance for learners, involving social partners in the adult learning system and raising awareness of the benefits of learning."

    I do have a slight unease with the report as I feel that is departs from a more economic than humanistic perspective on adult learning. In the report there is very little attention to the intrinsic value and benefit of adult learning. The report highlight extrinsic benefits of adult learning (e.g. economic benefits for the learner could be increased wages, higher incomes and improved employability); while the intrinsic benefits, such as self-development, development of the whole human being, are under-emphasised.

    Secondly, more could have been said about installing a general learning culture and learning environment in the countries. In other words, to develop the living and working environments of adults into conducive learning environments, instead of focussing on what happens in adult learning institutions.

    In any case, I hope that the report is used by adult learning professionals and policy makers to review their systems by looking at the six building blocks and that we all find inspiration to improve our adult learning policies.

  • Elena Galifianaki's picture

    Dear Andrew,

    First of all thank you for deciphering the 300 page report for us! Especially the identification of the six key “building blocks for successful adult learning policies" is very useful.

    From a quick look of the report, it seems like it is indeed a report that states, as you say, the obvious and highlights the building blocks to succeed in putting together successful adult learning policies.

    However, I feel that we have more than enough reports and studies that indicate optimum ways to handle adult learning but it seems that adult education is not high on the agenda for politicians and policy makers alike. The lack of political decisiveness, to enforce best practices into policies, which will then be implemented, stands in the way of moving forward in this field.

    For anyone interested in having a read through the report it may be accessed here: