Adult lifetime skills: a literature review

A literature review on adult lifetime skills.


This paper presents the findings from a literature review that was carried out to inform the Scottish Government's development of a lifetime skills offer. The aim of the Scottish Government review is to simplify and strengthen skills support for working age adults in Scotland. This is in the context of the National Strategy for Economic Transformation (NSET) which sets out the priorities for Scotland's economy and the actions needed for Scotland to become a thriving, inclusive and entrepreneurial country. The NSET aims to ensure that Scotland's people have the skills that they need at every stage of life to have rewarding careers that meet the demands of an ever changing economy and society. On lifelong learning, the NSET commits to support and incentivise people, and their employers, to invest in skills and training throughout their working lives.

It is within this context that the Scottish Government is committed to reviewing the overall strategic approach to adult upskilling and retraining in Scoland, evaluating the impact and outcomes of their current interventions and investments, and building an evidence base to develop options for an enhanced system of adult lifelong learning support targeted at those who need it most.

This literature review is one part of the evidence base. Its focus is on adult work-based learning and retraining opportunities for those already in work or at risk of redundancy.

The aims of the literature review are to:

  • review the available published academic literature and policy / practice evidence on adult upskilling and retraining opportunities in Scotland.
  • gain an understanding of how Scotland's approach to lifelong learning compares to that elsewhere.
  • focus on the Scottish workforce, its different segments and barriers these segments may be experiencing in accessing and participating in adult upskilling / retraining opportunities.
  • review available published literature and data on the role of skills and training in alleviating poverty, in particular child poverty and tackling inequality.

The research questions addressed by the review are:

  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the current adult skills system in Scotland?
  • How does Scotland's approach to work-based lifelong learning or upskilling and retraining compare to elsewhere?
  • What role do skills and training play in alleviating poverty, and specifically child poverty, in Scotland?
  • What do we know about the impact of current skills provision in Scotland on equalities?

The literature search was carried out using the search terms listed in Annex A. The search parameters included literature published in the last five years and in the English language. All working-age adults in work were in scope. Schools, formal further education, formal higher education and the unemployed were out of scope. This ensured a clear focus on those in work as prioritised by work to progress a lifetime skills offer. This also complements the Scottish Funding Council Terteriary Education Review of Coherent Provision and Sustainability, the recommendations of which are currently being taken forward. This approach was agreed with policy colleagues at the start of the project.

Annex A provides further detail on the method including databases and websites searched. The search yielded a sample of over 200 sources. The abstract, summary or introduction of each source was reviewed for relevance and the sample was reduced to 92. The 92 reports / papers were reviewed in full, including compiling an assessment of the methodology and making summary notes on the key findings. A thematic analysis was carried out, identifying key themes from the literature and drawing these together to write the report.

The paper is structured as follows:

1. What are the benefits of, and barriers to, lifelong learning?

2. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the current adult skills system in Scotland?

3. What can Scotland learn from the approach to work-based learning or upskilling and retraining elsewhere?

4. What role do skills and training play in alleviating poverty and child poverty? Is there any Scottish specific evidence?

5. What do we know about the impact of current skills provision on equalities? Is there any Scottish specific evidence?



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