Adults who take up full-time GCSE courses are to get free tuition and weekly grants of £30, the government has announced.
Until now grants and free tuition have only been given to under-19s
The Skills White Paper recommends these for all people over the age of 19 who have not previously achieved five passes or above.
This follows criticism that the system is failing thousands of adults who wish to return to full-time study but cannot afford it without working at the same time.
The aim is also to close the skills gap which leaves the UK with lower productivity levels than competitor countries.
Education Secretary Charles Clarke said: "Skills matter. They help business to compete, and they help individuals raise their employability and provide a route to a better life.
"The success of the country depends on our skill base. For the first time ever, we have produced a skills strategy to enable business and individuals to play a leading part in the global economy, producing the multi-skilled, flexible labour force which will play a critical part in preparing the country for the euro assessment.
"Increasing the nation's skills levels is not about endless piecemeal
initiatives. It's about a social partnership between the government, business
and the unions, working together to forge a skills alliance."
But shadow education secretary Damian Green said: "Faced with a problem of low skills which goes back 50 years, this response is a timid and half-hearted disappointment."
Currently, maintenance grants are only on offer to those under the age of 19 and from poorer families.
The white paper also recommends free tuition for some over-19s who want to study A-level or equivalent courses, known as Level 3.
Unlike the blanket funding at GCSE, this will be limited to so-called "shortage" subjects. These would be decided on a regional basis.
For instance, if there was a lack of computer skills in one part of the country, fees for A-level information technology would be paid.
The government would not help with the subject in a place where there were plenty of adequately qualified people.
David Gibson, chief executive of the Association of Colleges (AoC), which represents principals in further education, said: "It is a national imperative to improve the supply of skills at technician level - for example a qualified plumber must possess relevant qualifications at Level 3.
"We should not push away the ladder of progression at too early a stage, especially when individuals' returns on the costs of studying are known to kick in after they have gained Level 3 qualifications.
"AoC hopes the government will give early attention to introducing this entitlement."
Liberal Democrat education spokesman Phil Willis added: "The government's skills strategy remains complicated and confused.
"Delivery of technical skills to A-level standard will become a regional lottery. Adults will be selected for training on the whim of a tangled web of national and regional decision-makers."
The government is not providing any maintenance grants for A-level standard students.
Gordon Lishman, director general of Age Concern England, said: "People over 50 have fewer qualifications and are less likely to receive training than younger adults.
"If the government is to make age equality in the workplace a reality, older people must have equal access to training.
"Age Concern is delighted that Modern Apprenticeships are now available to older workers.
"However, the white paper has fallen short of giving older people equal access to training and education. In particular, student loans are still unavailable to anyone over 55."