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Vulnerable workers and the demise of adult education in England

Emma Wallis (Writepartner, Sheffield, UK )
Lizel Nacua (Entelechy Group, Fleury D'Aude, France)
Jonathan Winterton (Work and Employment Relations Division, Leeds University Business School, Leeds, UK)

Education + Training

ISSN: 0040-0912

Article publication date: 27 October 2021

Issue publication date: 20 April 2022




This paper reviews changing government policy on adult education in England over the past 20 years and the funding regimes affecting adult and community learning and union-led learning, which play a major role in learning opportunities for socially excluded adults.


A review and analysis of extant literature, informed by previous involvement in the sector and ongoing collaborations.


Two decades ago, adult education in England provided a variety of learning opportunities for people who either had limited qualifications or who needed to reskill for whatever reason. Access to those opportunities has been reduced just when it is most needed.

Research limitations/implications

This is a review and viewpoint paper based on experience in England, the limitations of which are discussed in the concluding section. Notwithstanding the institutional specificities of adult education in England, many of the implications are generic and have wider relevance beyond this country context.

Practical implications

Economic recovery post-coronavirus (COVID) and Brexit will require more access to adult education so people can prepare for labour market re-integration. The practical implication of extending provision in adult education to support labour market integration of vulnerable workers is relevant to most countries.


This paper takes a holistic view of adult education, with particular attention to adult and community learning and union-led learning.



Dedication: This paper is dedicated to the memory of our late friend and mentor Professor Bob Fryer, CBE (1944–2021) who was a key architect of much of the infrastructure of Adult and Community Education in England that has been systematically demolished by successive governments of the past decade. Working with trade unions, university continuing education departments and residential adult education colleges like Northern College, Bob actively promoted educational opportunities for the most vulnerable in society. His vision of a fairer society with a strong sense of community is carried forward by individuals who continue to organise learning opportunities for vulnerable workers without public financial support and in defiance of a hostile state.


Wallis, E., Nacua, L. and Winterton, J. (2022), "Vulnerable workers and the demise of adult education in England", Education + Training, Vol. 64 No. 2, pp. 244-258.



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