From education to employment

New DfES Research into UK Learners Throws Up More Questions Than Answers

Every year over 3 million learners take Further Education courses in the UK. But who are they? What is their motivation for learning? Do they go on to take further qualifications?

A new study commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) attempts to answer these questions and build up a picture of UK learning that will help the government push ahead with plans to increase the number of adults with Level 2 qualifications.

The study is based on detailed interviews with 9,000 FE learners aged 19 and over who were enrolled on courses during 2003. Whilst it appears to contain a lot of rather obvious information, there are a number of interesting facts and statistics about the age, gender, and motivations of UK learners. It sheds some light on several contentious issues that have rocked the sector in recent times, and perhaps, in the end, throws up more questions than it does answers.

Young and Old

Inevitably, and perhaps predictably, younger and older learners interviewed by the research team expressed very different reasons for undertaking courses in the first place. In general, young people wanted to improve their skills and gain qualifications to further an existing career or kick-start a new one. In contrast, older learners took courses in subject areas that were of interest to them, and often opted for more leisurely part-time courses.

These motivations place young and old on conflicting sides in the current battle over Further Education funding. The government wants to improve skills in order to safeguard the UK from the competition from emerging economies, and the extra funding it has made available has been a huge boost to the FE sector. But it clearly regards “upskilling” the workforce of the future as more important than the fulfilment of the retired, and “recreational” adult-education courses ““ the traditional mainstay of FE colleges ““ are being cut up and down the country.

Legislation = Education

Again, perhaps predictably, legislation making qualifications compulsory in certain professions scored highly as a motivation for learners undertaking their first ever Level 2 qualification. 40% of people on community and residential care courses and 27% on nursery and early years care courses cited this as a key motivation. This suggests that if the government wishes to increase the number of people with Level 2 qualifications, it needs to introduce legislation in sectors where qualifications are not currently mandatory.

In addition, persuading employers of the benefits of qualifications and encouraging them to train staff is also vital. Nearly 10% of learners taking Level 2 qualifications for the first time said that they were doing so at the behest of their employer. The government has complained that British industry (at least certain sectors of industry) still drags its heels over training employees. Their latest solution to this problem is to introduce special “skills academies” managed by the Sector Skills Councils (SSCs).

The End of FE As We Know It?

What this study really highlights is the extent to which the world of FE has become fragmented and divided. “Further Education” has always been a bit of a catch all term for any non- Higher Education post-16 learning, and the report shows that there are now at least three very distinct types of learner within the UK FE sector: learners just out of pre-16 education; the working population; and the retired. It seems very unlikely that General Further Education Colleges (GFECS) will be able to meet the needs of all three groups in the future.

Currently, 92% of learners aged 19-20 study in GFECs, and it is clear that the formal learning environment GFECs provide is particularly suited to their needs. 66% of learners aged 60+ also currently study at GFECs, but a drastic reduction in the number of “recreational” courses that GFECs are able to provide in the future looks likely. More and more of the general working population also look likely to be educated outside GFECs, and the government’s new “skills academies” have been set up largely because GFECs have fallen out of favour with industry (which accuses them of running courses to suit their own agendas).

So does this report actually herald the end of FE as we know it?

Joe Paget

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