Why pubs and clubs are good for the brain
A survey published this week reveals that the 25 Welsh FE colleges operate 3,076 outreach centres, an average of 123 each.
Two years ago some 104,697 learners enrolled on courses at centres, representing 33 per cent of enrolments.
The scale of modern outreach work is outlined in a report called Reaching out: taking learning out into the community. It is published by fforwm, the Welsh association of colleges. Fforwm says that outreach work plays a crucial part in progress towards the Welsh Assembly's goal of widening FE participation through social inclusion.
Its chair Huw Evans, principal of Coleg Llandrillo in Colwyn Bay, said:
"Outreach centres aim to provide a learning environment as close as possible to the homes of the learners.
"The purpose is to make learning more accessible to all by taking it into the community."
Scout huts and guide halls, prisons and libraries, alms houses and churches are other examples of the venues used by colleges as outreach centres.
Dr John Graystone, chief executive of fforwm, added: "Wales is still lagging behind England when it comes to the level of qualifications, and it is estimated that one in four adults in Wales has basic skills needs.
"The outreach centres developed by colleges provide learning opportunities in a comfortable environment and remove any barriers that may prevent people from taking that first step."
The survey shows that the real advance in this work took place in 1999 to 2000, when student enrolments increased by 52 per cent. The following year saw a further increase of 13 per cent. The low number of male learners is a concern: new females students outnumber males on a 70:30 ratio, and post-19 learners vastly outnumber pre-19s by a ratio of 91:9.
Helen Saunders, chair of fforwm's outreach managers network, said: "This research provides a really valuable insight into the nature of outreach provision and sets out the challenges ahead.
"Clearly the low percentage of men participating in these activities remains a worry and the sector must develop strategies to entice the disengaged back into learning." Around 70 per cent of enrolments are at entry level or level one, with 50 per cent of the total achieving the qualifications they seek.
One student who started an outreach course in basic skills three years ago is now on the verge of securing a place at university. Hazel Thompson, from Prestatyn, has completed more than 40 courses and is now studying the access to HE (higher education) course.
She said: "I initially attended the basic skills course at Rhyl community college purely because I found myself unable to help my daughter with her maths homework, and she was only eight years old."