Commission of the European Communities

Action Plan on Adult Learning

Action Plan on Adult Learning

It is Always a Good Time to Learn



1. Introduction

The Heads of States and Governments affirmed in 1997 in the preamble to the Amsterdam Treaty their determination “to promote the development of the highest possible level of knowledge for their peoples through a wide access to education and through its continuous updating” .1

In 2000 the European Council in Lisbon set the strategic goal for Europe to become the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based society in the world by 2010. A key element of the agenda proposed in Lisbon was the promotion of employability and social inclusion through investment in citizens’ knowledge and competence at all stages of their lives.

The Commission’s 2001 Communication Making a European Area of Lifelong Learning a Reality2 again stressed the importance of lifelong learning for all European citizens. One of the main messages was that traditional systems must be

transformed to become much more open and flexible, so that learners can have individual learning pathways, suitable to their needs and interests, and thus genu inely take advantage of opportunities throughout their lives.

The 2006 Joint Interim Report on progress under the “Education and Training 2010” work programme, stresses that all citizens need to acquire and update their skills throughout life and that the specific needs of those at risk of social exclusion need special attention. Adult learning (both in terms of quantity and quality) is also impor tant for the competence development of the medium and high-skilled people.3

The Commission’s 2006 Communication on Adult Learning 4: “It is never too late to learn”5 highlights the importance of adult learning as a key component of lifelong learning. It has a key role to play in developing citizenship and competence.

This Action Plan focuses on those who are disadvantaged because of their low literacy levels, inadequate work skills and/or skills for successful integration into society. Depending on the Member State, these could include migrants, older people, women or persons with a disability.

It starts from the premise that the need for a high quality and accessible adult learning system is no longer a point of discussion, given the challenges Europe has to meet in the coming years:

  • To reduce labour shortages due to demographic changes by raising skill levels in the workforce generally and by upgrading low-skilled workers (80 million in 2006). Adult learning can contribute both rapidly and effectively to doing so;
  • To address the problem of the persistent high number of early school leavers 6(nearly 7 million in 2006), by offering a second chance to those who enter adult age without having a qualification;
  • To reduce the persistent problem of poverty and social exclusion among mar ginalised groups. Adult learning can both improve people’s skills and help them towards active citizenship and personal autonomy;
  • To increase the integration of migrants in society and the labour market. Adult learning offers tailor-made courses, including language learning, to contribute to this integration process. Furthermore, participation in adult learning in the host country can help migrants to secure validation and recognition for the qualifications they bring with them;
  • To increase participation in lifelong learning and particularly to address the fact that participation decreases after the age of 34. At a time when the aver age working age is rising across Europe, there needs to be a parallel increase in adult learning by older workers.

The need to increase investment in adult learning is reinforced by the latest results for the benchmark indicator which show that adult (age 25– 64) participation in lifelong learning is no longer increasing and, in 2006, has even decreased slightly to 9.6 % .7

The Action Plan aims to help strengthen the adult learning sector in order to be able to use its full capacity. This is a complex sector, with a wide variety of provid ers, reaching all kinds of target groups. The cross-sectoral nature of adult learning is recognised.

The general objective of the Action Plan is to implement the five key messages established in the Communication It is never too late to learn: to remove barriers to participation; to increase the quality and efficiency of the sector; to speed up the process of validation and recognition; to ensure sufficient investment; and to monitor the sector.

1.1. The consultation process

This Communication is the result of a wide-ranging consultation following the publi cation of the 2006 Communication. During the first half of 2007, the Commission consulted Member States through four regional meetings (in Finland, Germany, Slovenia and Portugal) of representatives of the ministries for education and em ployment, the social partners and NGOs for adult learning.

As part of each regional meeting and based on the key messages of the 2006 Communication, the host country presented examples of good practice to participants demonstrating:

  • the results of an integrated stakeholders approach;
  • how to achieve basic skills for low-skilled workers;
  • how policies and actions for increasing participation in adult learning are being developed;
  • the way implementation of the system of recognition and validation of non-formal learning outcomes is being laid down.

This sharing of good practice which took place in these meetings can be considered as a first positive outcome of the process.

The Commission also used informal “national sounding boards” in Member States to get additional feedback on the Action Plan from policy makers, social partners and NGOs in formal and non-formal adult learning .8

The Commission was further supported in drafting the Action Plan by a group of experts made up of representatives from the Member States, the social partners and international bodies such as UNESCO.

2. An Efficient Adult Learning Sector Forms the Basis for the Action Plan

The contribution of the adult learning sector to achieving the Lisbon goals and to life-wide and lifelong learning could be improved by the creation of more efficient systems in which all relevant stakeholders are involved. The results to be achieved by this Action Plan also depend on the efficiency of those systems.

It is recognised that each Member State starts from a different level of develop ment in terms of participation, quality, financing and the development of the sector. There are many examples of good initiatives which have been developed in the Member States with EU support which could be emulated by others. 9

The consultation process and evidence from studies and research into this field show that a strong and efficient adult learning sector comprises a set of key elements that are strongly interconnected. These elements are:

  • the policies adopted to meet the needs and demands of society and the economy;
  • the structures for governance including the quality, efficiency and account ability of the adult learning system;
  • the delivery systems including learning activities, learning support and rec ognition of learning outcomes which address the motivation and learning needs of learners in the context of the needs and demands of society and the economy.

Partnership at European, national, regional and local levels is required to improve the efficiency of the adult learning sector, to widen and facilitate access and to facilitate proper funding.10

2.1. Policy

The consultation restated the fundamental need for public authorities, together with other stakeholders to intervene to guarantee learning opportunities to enable those at risk to achieve key competences .11 This intervention is needed to ensure that adults who left school without adequate formal qualifications and who wish to restart or continue their basic education at any time throughout their lives, should be supported with adequate and innovative learning pathways and with opportunities for the acquisition of competences through work-based training offers. The need for such intervention is even greater in the context of the rapid pace of change in the workplace and in skills needed for success there.

Stakeholders found that, compared to other areas of learning, the contribution and benefits of the adult learning sector are not well researched, debated or pub lished. Furthermore, the development of adult learning opportunities is not keeping pace with the needs of individuals and society.

To increase participation and to encourage investment, it is crucial that the quality, relevance, efficiency12 and effectiveness of adult learning be clearly visible.

Governments and other stakeholders should act, in their respective spheres, to facilitate access, to provide guidance and assessments, and to speed up the vali dation and recognition of learning outcomes achieved in non-formal and informal learning.

2.2. Governance

Contributors to the consultation were clear that good governance by adult learn ing providers contributes to effective adult learning provision. In turn, this results in quality learning outcomes for learners and good returns on investment for all stakeholders.

Good governance in adult learning providers is characterised by:

  • focus on the adult learner;
  • an innovative approach to learning;
  • effective needs analysis;
  • efficient administration systems and appropriate allocation of resources;
  • professional staffing;
  • quality assurance mechanisms for providers;
  • strong evidence-based monitoring and evaluation systems within national frameworks;
  • close relations with other educational areas and bodies such as learner’s organisation, branch associations and sectoral institutes. As employers are providers of a large portion of training to adults through work-based learning and providing a supportive environment, employer involvement in local and regional planning is crucial.

There is a need for a planned and systematic approach at all levels and within all elements of learning, formal and non-formal ,13 to improve accountability and transparency and to provide adequate confidence that adult learning provision will meet the requirements of all stakeholders, especially the adult learners.

2.3. Delivery

The consultation showed that a key challenge for adult learning is to deliver a service that simultaneously meets the needs of the adult learner, provides high quality responses to the needs of the labour market and society and stimulates further demand. Furthermore, a wide range of interconnected measures is needed to overcome the multi-dimensional barriers to participation. These include:

  • bringing high quality information and guidance closer to the learner. This can be achieved through community- or workplace-based services. There was a strong consensus that this should be provided free of charge for the target groups in this Action Plan;
  • bringing learning closer to learners in their communities and workplaces. This can be achieved through local learning centres, NGOs, workplace learn ing, e-learning. Differentiated learning opportunities should be offered that respond to the individuals’ specific needs;
  • enabling flexible access to assessment, validation and recognition of learning outcomes, leading to certification and qualification; this should be supported by guidance;
  • widening access to higher education14 in order to facilitate a “one level higher” qualification; putting in place demand-driven financial mechanisms (such as individual learning accounts, tax measures and loans provided either publicly or through a public guarantee mechanism) to address financial constraints and to motivate learning on a full-time or part-time basis;
  • encouraging individuals to invest in their own learning, both for reasons of personal fulfilment and employability. In this respect, adult learning is a power ful mechanism for language learning, in line with the Commission’s strategy as set out in the 2004-2006 Action Plan for Promoting Language Learning and Linguistic Diversity. 15 Guidance has a crucial role in helping adults to take advantage of the possibilities offered by companies, social services and other institutions.


3. Action Plan

In order to implement the key messages of the 2006 Communication and on the basis of the views collected during the recent consultation the Commission invites Member States to participate in a European Action Plan for the sector consisting of actions in the following areas:

  • analyse the effects of reforms in all sectors of education and training in Mem ber States on adult learning;
  • improve the quality of provisions in the adult learning sector;
  • increase the possibilities for adults to go “one step up” – to achieve a quali fication at least one level higher than before;
  • speed up the process of assessment of skills and social competences and have them validated and recognised in terms of learning outcomes;
  • improve the monitoring of the adult learning sector.

The implementation of such actions can be supported through the use of the Euro pean Social Fund and the Lifelong Learning Programme.



1 The Treaty establishing the European Community, en/treaties/dat/C_2002325EN.003301.html
2 European Commission Communication: Making a European Area of Lifelong Learning a reality,
3 Communication from the Commission to the Council, the European Parliament, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions: Towards Common Principles of Flexicurity: More and better jobs through flexibility and security, flexicurity_en.pdf
4 European Commission Communication: It is never too late to learn; defines adult learning as all forms of learning undertaken by adults after having left initial education and training.
5 European Commission Communication: It is never too late to learn, COM(2006) 614, 23.10.2006,
6 6 million in 2005: Commission Staff Working Paper “Progress towards the Lisbon objectives in education and training – Report based on indicators and benchmarks – Report 2006”, SEC (2006) 639.
7 Draft 2007 Progress Report.
8 In the consultation process 27 Member States, the 3 EEA countries and Turkey have been included.
9 ESF060603-ESF Support to Education and Training Background Document.
10 Promoting adult learning, OECD,2005,ISBN: 9264010939.
11 Recommendation of the European Parliament and of the Council of 18 December 2006 on key competences for lifelong learning, (2006/962/EC), OJ L 394/10, 30.12.2006.
12 Communication from the Commission “Efficiency and equity in European education and training systems”, COM(2006)481final,8.09.2006,
13 For definitions see “Memorandumon Lifelong Learning” SEC(2000) 1832,30.10.2000 and further work as the Classification of Learning Activities by Eurostat.
14 Flash Eurobarometer 192: 87 % of teaching professionals working in universities in the EU agree that universities should open up for adult learners.
15 Communication from the Commission to the Council, the European Parliament, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions: Promoting Language Learning and Linguistic Diversity: An Action Plan 2004 – 2006, act_lang_en.pdf

Adult Education and Development


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