Adult learning and progression issues: how people actually learn

I wrote the following article for a NIACE publication, in 2003, as I was working on the chapter posted previously. At the time, I was very involved in adult and community learning across Brighton and Hove (UK), teaching, training and evaluating projects, as well as researching the underlying issues and concerns underpinning the way adult basic skills was funded and delivered. We now have greatly reduced access to adult education provision across Britain; the emphasis either on a deficit model of basic skills and of communities, stranded alongside leisure classes usually offered at full cost and therefore out of the reach of people such as those I worked with and interviewed in the early 2000s. I’d argue the points I made in the original article still stand, the need for meaningful engagement and education provision, more urgent.

Widening participation and progression issues: lessons from a learning partnership in the southeast

I currently work in adult and community education in Brighton and Hove and have been involved in a range of projects over the last couple of years: embedding basic skills, mapping progression routes for adults and exploring community training needs for Neighbourhood Renewal.  From this work, I have been able to identify some key issues about participation and progression. In what follows, I draw on the experiences of local learners to illustrate how adults are attracted into learning and the factors that assist or work against their participation and progression.

Participation in what?
My work has shown me that you cannot separate learning from use. Most provision aimed at increasing participation rates involves basic or compensatory provision. However, it is rare for people to read just for the sake of it: they use literacy to communicate, organise, document and make sense of their lives.  Whilst it is important to acknowledge the correlation between basic skills and economic and social deprivation, it is also necessary to understand the embedded nature of effective learning.

People have multiple demands on their time, but if attractive, accessible and appropriate learning opportunities are available when needed, they will take advantage of them, as the following examples illustrate:
Julie is a home carer with young children, who discovered the daytime courses offered by her Community Education Centre: I moved here about a year ago… I wanted to meet people and do something with my time, as an adult not a carer […] the Art class […] taught me to look at things differently…maybe go on and try something else later.

Audrey joined a computer course last year but dropped out because she couldn’t see any point to her efforts. After becoming minutes secretary of her community group, she re-joined:  I tried computer skills last year… but I got bombarded with committee […] minutes  – I wanted to improve my computer skills this year to help with that so thought I’d go back.

Peter found local community education classes a lifeline after being made redundant: I was laid off… I’m doing this [Art class and IT] just to keep my brain going …coming [here] to study a bit more because I want to do something else with my life.

These examples illustrate the very different purposes for which adults learn and how they engage in learning as and when required by their life circumstances.

The need for a broad mix of learning provision
For many people, Adult and Community education is the first venture back into formal learning and can include any focus from Yoga and Cake Decorating to Everyday Spanish. If you narrow the available base of learning to basic skills and work-related skills then you restrict the opportunities available to people to start their engagement with formal education. Moreover, in promoting the conditions for participation and progression, the development of self-esteem and confidence is essential. Yet much adult provision does not begin to address issues of low self-esteem, poor confidence and limited expectations and therefore fails as what is offered does not attract people or meet their needs.

The following examples illustrate how imaginative use of funding can result in provision of relevant opportunities which both respond to people’s interests and skills needs and raise their self-confidence:

Conversational French combined with visits to France was offered to people on peripheral housing estates in Hastings. This approach broadened participants’ experiences and demonstrated the practical advantages of their new knowledge. As a result, these groups, more usually targeted with basic skills provision, had their expectations of education raised and their attitudes to learning were radically altered.

A Silver Surfers Club decided they wanted to learn web design through their UK Online Centre in order to develop an interactive web magazine for older people. Initially only basic computer literacy was available but their local Community Development Project found funding that enabled them to develop the skills they wanted.

Collective learning
As these examples show, learning is often a collective process, although it is usually assumed to be an individual activity. In my work I have found that the community is an important arena for learning programmes that respond to community needs and interests.

Several people from a marginal housing estate moved back into learning together through a local community education art class. Jo and Rhonda explain how they went on to organise a summer art scheme for children:
We learnt a lot from the summer workshops. Showed children how to do silk screen painting, batik, glass painting [ …] as well as teaching the children how to do it we learnt a lot ourselves […] we had… £3500 to pay for the artists. We worked alongside them learning as we went along… it was hard work, so many kids but we learnt a lot… and the kids enjoyed themselves.
They later became active in regeneration initiatives, organising after-school activities and a homework club having developed confidence and the collective ability to organise successfully within their community.

A group of women on a marginal estate joined a Yoga group set up by the Community Development worker with funding through the Primary Care Group as part of a Health in the Community initiative to address issues of poor health and low self-esteem. They went on to form a women’s health group and, with funding from the Scarman Trust, invited a range of health practitioners to work with them on issues around food, diet and exercise. The Community Development Worker helped them put together a development programme offering women’s yoga and counselling on the estate, identify their own training needs and to access voluntary sector training. Jaz describes the experience:
I learnt loads and the initial support was essential. [The Community Development worker] was great, she made you do it and basically, I know how to chair a meeting, organise, and run a Community Group […] two years ago I hadn’t a clue how to do any of that.

These examples highlight the benefits of innovative cross-agency collaboration within communities that both addresses their needs and builds on the desire to learn evident amongst many community members.

The examples above involve local neighbourhood provision.  Research with marginalized groups indicates that only a minority of courses are ever taken out to accessible and non- threatening community venues. The voluntary and community sector training providers I met during my work on regeneration told me that when they offer training in local venues, there is far more participation by marginalized groups who do not usually access their generic training programmes. A playgroup organiser also said how difficult it was to encourage volunteer workers to take up training opportunities that were not provided locally: they’ve said ‘I can’t go to college’. If there was something here, it would make a big difference.

Progression to where?

Lack of local opportunities to learn present a significant obstacle not only to widening participation but also to moving people on to the next stages of learning. My research mapping local progression routes showed that there is often no local, affordable accessible and supported next-step provision.

Because lack of basic skills is a major indicator of deprivation, most of the funding streams targeting disadvantaged groups and communities only fund courses at basic level or basic skills for employment without allowing for the development of supported progression pathways. A typical situation is that providers work to establish relationships in an area but at the end of funding, they are forced to leave and start work with new funding elsewhere. Learners are then left with raised expectations but without outlets to develop them. This is a continuing pattern that understandably leads to frustration amongst both providers and communities who have been targeted. According to a local student: Even though they have these courses […] sometimes there isn’t enough to keep you going at the end, nowhere to move on to

Short-term funding can be a serious barrier to progression when it results in programmes not running long enough for people to progress, when providers are only able to offer introductory level courses, and funding streams do not support co-ordination and strategic planning. A way of avoiding the problem of ‘parachuting in’ an odd course here and there is to offer programmes with built-in progression routes.  The following is an example from the local WEA:

With funding from the Lottery, the WEA designed a Women’s Community Learning Programme which was run in three areas of Brighton in collaboration with a range of voluntary and statutory partners. The programme offered three progression options. Students could move from non-accredited courses to an accredited programme, have exit guidance, or move into an OCN- accredited ‘Volunteers in the community’ course that directly built in community capacity-building. The funding allowed for provision of learning and language support as well as information and guidance.

Supporting progression
As this example illustrates, progression needs to be supported. Support for learners such as guidance on available options and help with costs, transport, and childcare are needed before many people can even begin to consider moving on. Without supported progression beyond level 1, the chances of achieving the Government’s level 2 learning targets appear slim. Formal progression routes may exist on paper, with the assumption that anyone should be able to access them, but feedback from local students I have interviewed shows that if the structural issues about access, suitability, and links are not addressed, many people will not be able to take advantage of them. One student told me:
I’m doing my NVQ2 [childcare] and I won’t be properly qualified until I’ve got my NVQ3. But then there’s having to travel all the way into Brighton to do it and it’s only evening courses and I’ve got two children. There might be a time when I’ve got no-one to look after them so that means its difficult to carry on studying.

An Unemployed Centre user and volunteer told me that her learning was only possible because of facilities the centre provides:
I volunteer in the Toy Library once a week… that allows me to use the crèche during the week and use the computers so I can study. I’m a single parent and I’ve just started an OU course so I use the space here while my child’s in the crèche – it’s impossible to work at home. Without this…the childcare, computers… I don’t think I’d even consider doing this course.

Models of progression
However ‘progression’ is not necessarily linear nor is it just about moving individuals through the system.  Many learners view their own progression as a broadening of their knowledge and often choose courses at the same or at a lower level if it meets their needs. For example, one local student used a ‘Develop your Writing’ course (OCN level 1-2) offered at her local community education centre to help with GCSE English that she was doing at her local FE College.

Progression can also mean the increased effectiveness of a community group, building capacity in an area to meet community needs:
A group of local women started computer training together, partly to help their children with their schoolwork. A local college sent a bus out to their peripheral housing estate to take them into college to study for their computer literacy (CLAIT) exams. When the funding ended, the bus was cancelled and the women could no longer continue with the course or gain a qualification. The local Community Development Project stepped in and arranged for an adult education provider to run CLAIT courses using the local library computer suite. Funding accessed by the Community Development project paid for the group to learn higher skills and act as volunteers in the library. Their progression wasn’t only about individual development:  The whole thing started because we were using the local library computer suite and I had an idea to re-pay them […] we did a voluntary course and I think that really kicked it off. It was highly enjoyable; it was the direction we wanted to go in.

The women then set up a computer club and were paid by the library to offer basic training for complete beginners. They had plans for the group to become community IT trainers, offering informal training using local IT facilities.

Adult learning is a complex process. People learn, but not always what or how educators (and governments) intend.  They do not make neat distinctions between different types of learning but participate in different bits of the learning jigsaw when their life circumstances allow, the need arises and the opportunities become available. Issues of support and access have to be confronted every time someone attempts to participate in learning. Overcoming barriers to learning is essential before opportunities can start to make a difference in people’s lives and progression becomes possible. Many of those who do not participate in organised learning are not ‘deprived’ or lacking in basic skills. They choose not to participate. Often this ‘choice’ is based on bad previous learning experiences and perceptions of learning as something formal and assessed.  It can also derive from the inaccessibility of relevant learning opportunities, and barriers such as costs and lack of childcare.

Progression pathways cannot hope to meet the needs of learners if they operate with a deficit model of communities lacking skills or knowledge. There is a clear need for multiple entry points into learning not just the obvious linear progression routes. People enter and re-enter learning for many and complex reasons. If the opportunities are not available, they will not engage or participate. What is needed is a broad matrix of learning, flexible and able to respond and adapt to a diversity of needs, with sign-posted pathways – a climbing frame model of progression offering structured progression routes available to be accessed when needed, with support available at transitional points. Learners can move up or down the frame to access accredited learning or make a sideways move to pick up a skill for a particular purpose.

We should provide the infrastructures and processes that facilitate learning, but recognise that people themselves have to determine how and what they wish to learn. By pre-determining adults’ learning routes we risk prescribing rather then facilitating their engagement.
February 2003