A door to better things

19th May 2006 at 01:00
Eric Massie looks at the success of 'Learning Hoosies' in attracting adult returners to education

A cynic once said that lifelong learning is that which we undertake after university. In the politically correct world we occupy, such a sentiment was bound to attract flak but it does, as do many apparently cynical statements, contain an element of truth.

It would be disingenuous to deny that for many the experience of compulsory education is not a happy one and any thought of returning to study has to be viewed in this light.

The disaffected can be engaged, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that community-based education is an important catalyst. There are initiatives aplenty throughout Scotland geared to this end and they enjoy varying degrees of success.

As a native son of north-east Scotland, I was struck by the cringe factor associated with the labelling of the Aberdeenshire "Learning Hoosies", a scheme aimed at attracting adults back to education. I never fancied myself as a candidate for the Learning Hoosie, although many would suggest I was a candidate for the "Big Hoose", as the asylum is euphemistically known in the Doric-speaking demesne.

That notwithstanding, and despite the twee sounding label, the Learning Hoosies are serving a purpose by providing a pressure-free environment within which adult learners can address gaps in their education and can, should they so choose, plan a coherent return to part or full-time learning programmes.

Jim Bradley, FE co-ordinator at Stirling University, is an advocate of the community-based access programme. In the Forth Valley region, he has organised and delivered a number of initiatives aimed at getting so-called "non-traditional" students into further and higher education.

The initial point of contact might be in a building with no educational connections, that is to say, in a non-threatening environment where intending learners feel comfortable and relaxed. The alternatives, college or university "open days", are often viewed by potential adult returners as threatening at worst, and unfamiliar at best.

Mr Bradley's approach is to encourage those thinking about returning to education to "go for it", a philosophy based on his own experience. As a disaffected telephone engineer he found himself on the top of a telephone pole in January and thought: "Sod this! There must be a better way."

So he embarked on his own return to study.

This approach is extremely effective: learners hear a down-to-earth man honestly engaging them in their own language and warm to his genuine interest in their realisation of their potential. A more effective strategy for re-engaging the disengaged is hard to imagine. (Incidentally, anyone who knows Jim will recognise that the expletive has been modified to suit the readership of this erudite journal.) The importance of basing learning in a comfort zone is clear; the difficulties arise where progression is envisaged. The discourse of community-based further education is that of a curriculum delivered in a local setting in the language of the learner (a pox on the description of "learners" as "customers").

The culture shock so frequently described by students crossing the divide from college to university is directly associated with the need to adjust to another, often alien, discourse. Currently, progress is being made on a number of fronts. The Scottish Funding Council has undertaken a project to promote articulation from Higher National qualifications to degree studies under the direction of myself and Hazel Knox of Paisley University.

The generic issues of transition between sectors have long been recognised and valuable work was undertaken by Professor Alex MacLennan, principal of Bell College, in this regard. However, the ongoing project has, as a core objective, an emphasis on building bridges at subject level, bringing together practitioners from college and university sectors to ease transition for students.

Not surprisingly, university and college lecturers seldom come into direct contact during the course of the average working week, meeting instead at open days and conferences.

Last month, an event at Glasgow University demonstrated the benefits of drawing them together. Michael Guy, Stow College, and Andrew Payne, Glasgow Caledonian University, organised a conference on articulation from college to university in the area of health care. Many delegates expressed an interest in developing closer ties between sectors in order to support students making the transition from Higher National qualifications to degree studies.

Across Scotland work is in progress, supported by the Scottish Wider Access Regional Forums, to raise an awareness of the opportunities available. It is to be hoped that the success of the project will bring about a fundamental change in communities blighted by the economic ravages of post-industrialism and give back dignity and self-belief to a generation denied the opportunity to enter well-paid, readily available employment.

The local college has long been perceived as the first step for the adult returner on an often intimidating pathway into full-time education.

Colleges have a proud record of supporting students through those difficult few months following their return to study. Universities are now following some of the methods utilised in colleges to help those learners bridging from HNQs to degrees.

There is evidence to support the view that the post-1992 institutions are in the vanguard of innovation in this respect. But the ancient universities are also developing strategies for supporting students entering by alternative routes to traditional Higher grades.

Education changes people. The children of those brave souls who entered the teaching profession under the special recruitment scheme of the 1960s have grown up in an environment where education was valued and they in turn have passed these values on to a new generation. I know because I am such a product.

As a teacher in both the college and university sectors, I have witnessed the life-changing effects of education on those who missed out on earlier opportunities, for whatever reason. Listening to their stories, it becomes apparent that ultimately poverty is to blame: not just economic hardship, but the effects of that most corrosive attitude - that post-compulsory education is "no' for the likes of us".

Mercifully, this attitude is being beaten back, slowly but incontrovertibly, by dedicated people committed to the democratisation of our educational system.

Dr Eric Massie is adviser on access at the Scottish Further Education Unit.

The views expressed in this article are his own.

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