Too many management strategies are based on the belief that it is the young who need most nurturing, the Further Education Development Agency study suggests. "The model of the adult learner as autonomous, self-directed and highly motivated is remote from the reality of many students," say the authors in a report, The FE College and its Communities.
Adults are making a very big decision when they decide to go back to college. If things go wrong, they will quickly decide to drop out. They need considerable support and may have to approach their learning indirectly through preparatory courses and intermediate qualifications.
"For many adult learners, the goal of the qualification is less important than increasing self-confidence, which may then lead them to a job or qualification," said the study, which involve 12 colleges and researchers from the University of Warwick.
However, the Government's funding regime does not help colleges address such basic needs. Community groups and local industry put a high value on outreach courses to meet such needs, but they are expensive to run.
The study used a new style of action research being developed in FE to spot problems and find solutions at a time of rapid change. The report promotes new strategies and approaches to adult learning. It says: "Many adults returning to education, as well as younger students, identify with a sympathetic tutor, rather than with the college as a whole.
"The college must be big enough to offer specialist teaching in the areas where it is needed, but must be prepared to operate as a small-scale social institution in supporting groups of students. Many adults return to education tentatively. Their commitment can easily be shaken by bad experiences."