From education to employment

Tackling barriers to learning for disadvantaged students

Dr Ann Limb CBE DL Founder Helena Kennedy Foundation

On Tom Bewick’s topical and timely #SkillsWorld LIVE show last week (Episode 7, 22 October 2020), he asked the question ‘Are we doing enough for disadvantaged learners?’ The short and simple answer from his interviewees was an unequivocal no based on the experience of those of us involved in running social mobility charities and youth unemployment organisations: Laura-Jane Rawlings CEO, Youth Employment UK and myself, founder of FE’s only social mobility charity, the Helena Kennedy Foundation. All of us have experience of working with students for whom the barriers to learning are raised so high that their disadvantages can only be overcome through access to multiple and targeted interventions. The disproportionate impact of Covid on those most marginalised and disadvantaged in society has made the need to address this issue more relevant and more urgent than ever before – so below are four actions of what works and what we could do more of, with examples drawn from the Helena Kennedy Foundation (the HKF).

Financial support to address demonstrable and specific needs

‘How can our children learn if they are hungry?’ the words of a tweet this week from Dame Alison Peacock, former headteacher and Chief Executive of the Chartered College of Teaching, commenting on one of the major and universal barriers to learning for disadvantaged students – financial resource. This issue rose to prominence, with impeccable and uncanny timing, because the cost of feeding children and young people on free school meals over half term was subject to a vote in parliament. As I write this piece, calls abound for a reversal of the government’s decision not to make a financial intervention on this. Three significant and separate responses – from Tory rebel MPs many in ‘red wall’ constituencies, local council leaders, and a celebrity footballer’s online petition – have been launched. A campaign for the government to reverse its decision and to find money to tackle food poverty – one of the biggest barriers to learning any student can face – is underway.

Putting money towards fixing a problem works – it is as basic as that. I don’t mean throwing money at a need to make it go away but targeted financial interventions allied to an identified need; money helps lift and in some cases, removes a barrier to learning. Tackling hunger through a financial subsidy is just one example. Addressing the persistent and now pressing issue of the digital divide is another. Those most digitally disadvantaged – learners without access to a personal smart device and a fast connection – are suffering as a result of the transformation of online teaching and learning accelerated by the pandemic

There are a range of financial mechanisms that can be used such as bursaries, grants, scholarships, and maintenance allowances – all of which are aimed at directly supporting students from low income households whose education is thwarted by a lack of money. Furthermore, education, youth engagement and social mobility charities working in this field, such as the Sutton Trust, the Scouts, Villiers Park Education Trust, the City & Guilds Foundation and the Helena Kennedy Foundation can now measure and evidence the ‘change’ and impact in personal, social, emotional and educational terms of providing financial support to tackle disadvantage through the application of their theory of change models.

Could we do more to help disadvantaged students? Unquestionably yes if more money was made available. For example, at the Helena Kennedy Foundation, we were not able to offer financial support to all the students who applied for a bursary in 2020. We received 400 applications and the majority of them were needy and deserving cases. We could only award 75 bursaries. Here is an example of a mature FE student from Birmingham who would have merited a bursary had HKF had enough funds.

David (name changed) was made homeless and suffered a serious accident which resulted in his being bed ridden for months and things becoming extremely challenging with his partner. He  was sectioned under the mental health act following a nervous breakdown and spent 8 weeks in mental health respite, 3 of which were whilst attending his FE college to finish his studies. He was diagnosed with severe anxiety disorder, depression and ADHD and offered supported accommodation from where he was able to conclude his FE college course with distinction. He has now started university without support from HKF.

‘Hand out, hand up, hand on’ – the use of volunteers to act as buddies, mentors and role models

Financial support is a necessary but not sufficient solution to tackling barriers to learning for disadvantaged students. Money (a handout) must be accompanied by another commodity (a hand up). This is the belief that one human being has in another’s ability to get through and succeed, despite the difficulties and barriers.

This is why intergenerational volunteering, as given recent prominence in the Kruger Report, plays such a crucial part in creating a humane civil society. Contact with and support from someone who has either had a similar experience or has the motivation, imagination, empathy, and skills to understand another person’s barriers to learning can assist enormously in helping overcome a number of disadvantages. At the Helena Kennedy Foundation (HKF) for example, in addition to supporting learners from low income households, we frequently deal with learners whose experience of disadvantage includes familial chaos and mental or other ill health issues, the burden of caring responsibilities for siblings and parents, incidents of physical or psychological abuse or neglect, emotional, physical or material deprivation, drug or alcohol dependency – the list goes on. If you have been subject to any sort of disadvantage, the chances are you need a significant human hand up over the barriers before you can move on confidently, unaided, and offer your own hand to another.

There are many manifestations of such vital human interventions. At the HKF for example, although our beneficiaries tell us that the gift of money (a £3000 non-refundable ‘badged’ bursary) enables them to move from an FE course to a university degree or apprenticeship, what makes the critical difference, they say, is knowing that at the Foundation there is someone friendly, impartial and knowledgeable to whom they can turn for advice and help when there is nowhere else to go.

Tia (name changed) is one of our students who was going through a tough time at university. She had been sexually assaulted, and the experience really took its toll on her mental health. She continued to attend university, but it was very hard. The university supported her the best way they could, but she had to quit her part time job because of the assault, and this impacted her financially. She then tried to take her own life saying ‘I don’t know who to trust or who to turn to. I’ve got the kids to think about, uni to think about and bills that I can’t pay. I feel like I’m drowning. I just want someone to help me… in any way they can’. She ended up in hospital, where she was put under the specialist care of the mental health team. However, being part of the HKF ‘family’, Tia kept in touch with the Foundation throughout and came through because that human lifeline was kept open to her through this dark and difficult period.

The problems and disadvantages students were dealing with in their FE college don’t suddenly disappear once they have got to university. This is why the ‘hand ups’ provided through buddy, face to face and online mentoring and work shadowing schemes are so vital to helping overcome barriers to learning for disadvantaged students. It is also why so many students who have received both a handout and a hand up from charities like the HKF choose to ‘hand on’ their own knowledge, skills, time and money to support fellow students with difficulties and disadvantages.

Access to networks, employment experience and the professions – contacts, cash and caring colleagues

Covid has thrown a light on the prevalence of structural inequalities in society whether this results from a person’s racial or social background. Research from the Social Mobility Foundation, the Sutton Trust and similar think tanks and educational policy institutes consistently confirms that the ‘daily lived experience’ of learners from disadvantaged backgrounds tells us that it’s ‘not just what you know but who you know’ that plays a huge part in determining degree or career choices – particularly for students who have no one in their personal hinterland who has any knowledge of or link to the world they are seeking to enter. Access to professional networks and role models of people who can offer a work shadowing or work placement experience or act as a mentor to a disadvantaged student makes all the difference.

This type of help is one that is most sought after by HKF bursary beneficiaries. The Foundation is in constant need of contacts, cash and caring colleagues – individuals and employers who can help us offer this service to our students especially in fields such as engineering, architecture, fashion, film and media.

A recent example of this came in the form of a request from a mature student at the University of West London who is studying fashion, doesn’t have any connections and has asked for support after graduation to help get a foot in the industry. HKF has put a call out to everyone we know in this field, but our connections are limited!

Employers and businesses are now more attuned to the existence of real disadvantage and the moral case for tackling injustice and many have also realised that there is an untapped talent pool of hard-working resilient graduates on their doorstep. At the HKF we need many more employers to make contact with us and to work with us to offer this access to disadvantaged learners. Some might even think about following the shining example of ncfe and the Skills & Education Group

National awarding bodies, ncfe and Skills & Education Group, both led by passionate advocates for social justice, respectively David Gallagher and Paul Eeles, have longstanding partnership agreements with the HKF. The organisations they lead undertake significant work in the adult and further education sector and they proudly ‘put something back’ through their company CSR programmes. They not only provide financial support to HKF through badged bursaries but also link their employees directly with HKF students and graduates so that their employees obtain valuable volunteering experience, gain additional skills, life experiences and friendships and maintain contact with their customers.

Celebrating and sharing success

One of the most memorable and often quoted phrases coined by Helena Kennedy when she published her report Learning Works’ in 1997 was the following ‘If at first you don’t succeed, you don’t succeed’ This sums up how the odds are stacked against learners from disadvantaged backgrounds and that’s what led me to me found the charity in 1998. Something practical had to be done to help many more students from the adult and further education sector succeed as they left college and went on to higher education and into employment. It is amazing to me that since HKF started 22 years ago this month, with the award of a handful of bursaries, almost 2000 students from disadvantaged backgrounds have gone through the Foundation, turned their own lives around, transformed the lives of many others, enriched the industries and professions they have joined and made a fantastic contribution to society as a whole.

The old cliché is also true – that ‘nothing succeeds like success’ Those of us who have experienced comparatively few disadvantages in life can only imagine what the experience does to those less fortunate than us. We can listen to and learn from their stories and we can share in and promote their success. The recognition and the boost HKF students experience from knowing someone believes in them is both immense and immeasurable. As I said at the top of this piece, the financial value of a bursary and the wraparound support (access to mentoring, networks, signposting) is a necessary and hugely valuable first step in addressing the barriers to learning for disadvantaged learners. However, badging a bursary with HKF is more than badging a bursary, it is investing in a talented individual and celebrating and sharing with them in their success.

Dr Ann Limb CBE DL Founder Helena Kennedy Foundation

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