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'There is demand for flexible education'

Online courses can offer reduced training costs and limits the amount of time that is required for training

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Online courses can offer reduced training costs and limits the amount of time that is required for training

For all the recent news that has centred on FE colleges being placed in administered status for mismanagement, there has been remarkably little discussion about alternative FE. While physical colleges may be a good fit for some students, surveys have shown that the lack of flexibility in the course timings combined with the not insignificant fees are off-putting to many adult learners.

This is a problem because we know that lifelong learning is so vitally important; not just for those who are thinking about changing careers or retraining for their existing job, but for immigrants, single parents and those living in rural areas. The demand is phenomenal without any marketing or publicity but there is a real lack of funding.

Benefits of lifelong learning

In addition to gaining new knowledge, continued education can be good for your mental and physical health. It has been shown to contribute to memory, attention and decision-making processes, which can in turn delay symptoms and potentially reduce the occurrence of neurological conditions like dementia. Overall, people who engage in lifelong education tend to be healthier, with links to decreases in smoking, lower risk of heart disease and a lower occurrence of obesity.

This is not to say that individuals are the only ones who benefit from training courses; companies are improved by it as well. When employees take part in further education, their earnings, aspirations and job satisfaction have been shown to increase, which has the knock-on effect of improving productivity, employee commitment and overall turnover rate.

With all of these benefits, why is FE the only aspect of education to get consistently cut every year over the past decade?

Funding ‘lost learners’

There was a glimmer of hope for those of us who realise the great potential of alternative learning when in March of this year skills minister Anne Milton announced a £11.7 million fund for flexible learning. We were among the 32 providers selected for this scheme and in the past six months we have been able to help 290 people get upskilled at their own pace through online courses ranging from warehousing and full-time stadium security to radio work, business admin and fitness instruction in two months.

Within this cohort, we have equipped 11 single mothers with the skills to start their own business. We have given a number of immigrants the basis for their career in this country. And we have supported a number of tradesmen and women towards achieving certification that will help them to increase their earnings.

This pilot experiment has shown that there is a real demand for this type of alternative, flexible education. This method has reduced training costs and limits the amount of time that is required for training, which is certainly beneficial to individuals and businesses alike.

Lack of flexibility

But perhaps the most important takeaway from this fund has been that adult learners, or what has been called the “lost learners” need the ability to work at a time that is convenient to them. The lack of flexibility, along with the costs, is cited as the reason that most of this age group do not return to further education.  

What happens next?

With so much success, and so much demand, it begs the question: what happens when the funding runs out? Well, for us, the funding has run out.

There is no word as of yet from the government on what they plan to do to further the provision of alternative education for adults. Given Labour MP Wes Streeting’s comments following the budget announcement last week that the government has “no vision” for FE or lifelong learning, we can only presume that this project, like others before it, will quietly die.  

But as a business owner and education ambassador, I am sickened knowing that there are hundreds of people in my community in Sheffield but especially in every community there are single parents, homeless people, doctors and nurses among them, who I will not be able to help without further government funding. I understand the great experiment of democracy as much as the next Brit, but if something is working…fund it! 

I hope to see announcements in coming months that in-depth evaluation of the programme proves it to be indispensable, as I know it to be.     

Sam Warnes is founder and chief executive of EDLounge

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