Mature learners.

Now is the time to recognise that older learners need just as much advice, support and encouragement as the 16-18 year olds. Here Dick Evans explains why and sets out an agenda for action.

The current government policy, like many others before, on how to increase and widen participation of mature learners and realise their concept of lifelong learning is full of contradictions and paradoxes.

In order to improve the knowledge, understanding, skills and competences of its citizens to cope more effectively with life and the challenges of the global economy and to recognise and prepare for the rapidly changing nature of the country’s demography it is essential to have a well thought out and stable set of strategies. The real harvest of future learners are mature people and yet this obvious and manifest fact is constantly subjected to short term and often eye catching headlines but results in uncertainty in how providers and indeed the potential learners are to be supported on a long term secure basis. Government announcements abound with all the attendant and resultant uncertainty that these precipitate in all the parties’ minds. The government quite rightly wants to increase and widen participation of mature people in continuing education and training but continually introduce changes in the support mechanisms for these individuals – constant changes to benefits creates confusion in the potential learners mind. Priorities constantly change with the inevitable initiative overload for the providers. Even within the younger leaner groups there are mixed messages e.g. one minute it is the 14 to 16 year old then the 14 to 19 year old, then the rapid development of the modern apprenticeships and then special attention for Key Stage 3 in the National Curriculum. Analysis shows that most of the money being made available for post 16 education is targeted on the younger learner and basic skills – nothing wrong with that but it currently leaves little to properly resource the mature learners who require significant levels of funding.

Mature learners are key to the government’s aspirations of lifelong learning and many of the national targets. Their needs are complex and multifaceted and must be recognised and managed in order to produce a well-informed, competent, well skilled, versatile and knowledgeable individual. Only then can these individuals play their part in resolving some of the real problems confronting this countries current and future employment difficulties e.g. skills shortages. It’s a very challenging agenda that must be well resourced and fully recognise the diverse and often complex needs of the learners themselves and the way that the wide range of providers are managed and operate. The strategies for these learners must articulate with those that are being developed and introduced for the younger learner and both must be treated in equal and fair fashion in spite of the fact that the mature learner requires different approaches.

Experience has shown that the older learner needs more information, support and guidance and requires different management structures and teaching and learning skills from the provider and teacher. If this is realised then the mature learner will be retained and ultimately achieve their qualification aims. Sadly many people avoid returning to study because of previous negative experiences with the education system whether at school or college. Very often there is a complex mix of factors that deter these individuals from making a commitment to return to study and the real challenge in these cases is to recognise and manage these. In addition to these historical factors it is very important to attempt to reduce and/or remove any other barriers and deterrents that might exist (I will return to these later). One essential element that is never considered is whether many individuals, young or old, want to return to study.

UNIVERSAL THIRST FOR KNOWLEDGE?

All the assumptions about lifelong learning are that everyone is thirsting to learn. Sadly this is not the case at present. Interestingly many people are becoming more passive in their attitude to learning possibly because of the easy access at the press of a button to ‘packaged’ information and entertainment. When one reflects on the enthusiasm and curiosity of working people, even after long shifts, in the nineteenth century to attend lectures and formal classes staged in Mechanics Institutes and Societies for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SfDUK) one can see that today even with sophisticated learning media people do not have the same desire or motivation. This sad but accurate state of affairs must be carefully considered and recognised before setting global targets for learner participation. A recent National Audit Office (NAO) report on the state of the library service possibly again highlights the declining interest in self-improvement and accessing the rich resources in this free service. Even accepting some of the idiosyncratic methods e.g. limited opening hours; lack of expensive computing equipment it does reflect a changing attitude. Following the report some commentators observed that people preferred to access information via the Internet and through cyber cafes and similar facilities. However other research has shown that the majority of this use is associated with sending emails or surfing the net in an unfocussed way. National strategies must deploy the limited resources available instead of making questionable assumptions about all the population. Too often politicians and educationists make assumptions based on their limited beliefs and personal experiences. Far better to target resources and effort and plan on quality and not quantity of provision in order to realise real achievement and value for money.

With mature students it is important to recognise the factors that could deter them from returning to study which in spite of their commitment are often beyond their control. Financial issues inevitably figure as learning always comes at a cost and very often people on limited means do find it difficult to commit their limited resources to any additional expenditure. Cost of travel, purchasing essential learning resources and equipment, cost of residentials and visits, cost of childcare facilities and additional expenditures cause real problems. The introduction of tuition fees for Higher Education (HE) study has further deterred mature learners especially in the lower socio economic groups from entering HE. Another fact not often discussed is the inherited debts that many learners incur and carry forward when they undertake study at Further Education (FE) level with the hope of progressing on to HE.

A SECOND CHANCE.

FE has a long and credible history of providing second chance opportunities for mature learners but up to now have been unable to properly financially support these important learners to a level that they want to. In spite of the various initiatives such as student loans, access and hardship funds many learners still find it difficult to continue their studies let alone complete their studies without incurring large debts. The recent farce associated with Individual Learning Accounts (ILAs) has shown how difficult it is to have a fair and open system to support the learner. It is not yet clear what the government intends to do to introduce an alternative system after the shambolic state of affairs it created with ILAs. One real issue is that further and higher study raises expectations in the learners mind and because of the increasing uncertainty in the employment market they often have a false view of their future careers and earning power. Another recent report showed the real concern that graduates have about clearing their debts now typically £9,000, while over 50% expressed concern about their future prospects in the work place. As this country moves to a mass HE system graduates often see the only way to differentiate themselves from other graduates is to work for higher degrees – a trend already witnessed in the USA. This will further increase their debts and further undermine and to some extent dilute the first degree. Already employers question the value of many first degrees and the ability of many graduates. They want graduates who are more realistic about their abilities and that the content of the qualifications possessed are ‘fit for purpose’ and prepares them for the work in hand. A key consideration in the minds of the graduates at all levels is not only the prospects of short-term contracts and multiple careers with all the attendant problems that causes but the growing debates about the need to plan and invest for their pensions and possible care costs in old age. All these factors must be considered with great care by the government and providers of education and training as they draft strategies and tactics to increase and widen participation for mature learners.

Summary

In order to increase and widen participation of mature learners the following issues must be recognised and managed:

  • Comprehensive and effective guidance systems must be established with all the appropriate agencies working closely together.

  • Effective careers information, advice and guidance provided in order not to raise unrealistic expectations of employment and/or higher education opportunities.

  • The domestic and financial circumstances of the learners must be openly and sympathetically assessed and that includes any inherited debts incurred from previous study.

  • Effective and appropriate initial assessment systems must be developed for potential learners followed up with programmes of support to recognise and deal with any identified difficulties.

  • The learner must be placed on the appropriate programme of study in order to realise greater retention and achievement.

  • Providers must continue to develop effective support services for the learners on an on going and continuous basis.

  • Providers must be resourced sufficiently be respond to the additional demands made by mature learners.

  • More effective partnerships between all the providers and other agencies must be developed to maximise impact of the various campaigns to engage with the mature learner and to realise value for money.

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