A national body has called on employers, policy-makers, unions, providers and charities to work more effectively together in a bid to stem the dwindling numbers of adults involved in learning.
The figures show a 1% drop on 2011, but a 5% fall since 2010, when 43% adults were either doing some kind of course or had done so in the last 36 months.
David Hughes, NIACE’s chief executive, said: “Participating in learning can help people secure work, stay and flourish in their jobs, keep healthy and play a positive role in their community. All of those are even more important now with a tough labour market, an ageing population and stressed communities.”
As a result, it was “disappointing” that participation was “declining”, with many of the people who were most likely to benefit missing out, he added.
One of the problems was that learning take-up was still determined by class, age, employment status, prior learning experiences and attainment, Hughes said.
So for example, 44% of people in full-time work and 42% in part-time jobs were studying something compared with just two out of five who were looking for work, just under a quarter who were out of work and 14% who had retired.
But even among those people who were working, the number participating in learning had fallen by two and three percentage points respectively.
Those who had stayed on in the education system for longer were also more likely to study than those who left at the earliest opportunity. Just under half of people who left full-time education when they were 21 or more are still learning compared with only 23% who left school at or before 16.