Adult returners do not always slip easily into traditional FE programmes, writes Neil Merrick
STAFF at a college singled out for praise by a drug-rehabilitation centre are discovering that it is not easy to bring in people who have fallen through education's net.
It's one thing to enrol them; it's another to integrate them. Behind jargon such as "inclusive learning" and "widening participation" lies a tough agenda as colleges struggle to marry traditional approaches and radical reforms.
As student numbers at Kensington and Chelsea College have risen, staff have noticed tension between some of the newer - mainly adult - intake and students used to formal teaching.
Enrolments at the west London college have increased from about 10,000 a year in 1991 to 15,000. Its inclusion on a list of agencies recommended by the local drug- rehab centre proved how well the college was targeting the groups identified by Baroness Kennedy in her report on widening access. But then problems began.
Students complained when three heavy drug-users joined a basic skills course, but the three continued on the programme. "We have got a name for being able to deal with adults who have particular problems," says Jo Swindells, the college's head of basic skills. "We have been a victim of our own success."
Although the college will, as a last resort, exclude disruptive students, it always tries alternatives such as asking them to switch courses and offering counselling.
Staff receive training in dealing with disruptive students, a minority of whom may have mental health problems. "It's one thing if somebody is misbehaving, but if they are ill it's a different matter," says assistant principal Amanda Hayes. "They may have difficulty managing medication, in which case it's difficult to exclude them or tell them off. It makes huge demands on the lecturers." Tension also occurs between students wishing to learn at different paces, and between adults attending regularly and those who miss lessons. "Students are not as tolerant of one another as they should be," adds Ms Hayes.
National vocational qualifications, designed to allow students to learn at their own pace, do not always help. One hairdressing class has been the scene of disputes between students over who cuts whose hair and whose turn it is to run the salon's reception area.
"We've some very strong students who push their way through the system," says Sally Waters, head of hairdressing. "But we want everybody to have a fair chance in order that they can be assessed on teamwork."
Jo Swindells identifies two distinct groups of adult returners. The first are the academically bright people who underachieved at school. Eager to learn, they become angry when fellow students get in their way.
The second group includes people with social and other problems and needs more encouragement to return to education. Initially their presence may have a negative effect on fellow learners, but the college is adamant that it does not want to segregate students for long periods. However, it does run some small community classes away from its main buildings.
At a social club near Portobello Road market, three women on return-to-learn programmes pare composing sentences from basic phrases to help their writing and communication.
Tutor Josie Pearse says the main barrier facing them is that "they have lost the habit of learning". Three more of the group are away because of domestic demands. "It doesn't feel as if we are at school," explains Ellie Lovell, who enrolled just before Christmas. "If I went to college, everybody would be looking at me and saying, why is this 40-year-old woman wanting to learn again?" Before the course finishes the women will be encouraged to enrol for GCSEs at the main college.
According to Amanda Hayes, tolerance needs to be mixed with rules and support. "It's very much second-chance education and so we have got to give students the benefit of the doubt," she says. "But there are only so many people we can absorb naturally. Otherwise there comes a point when the whole thing will tip over."