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Understanding adult needs

Adult Learning Pathways: through routes or cul-de-sacs. Veronica McGivney.

Most students are adults. Some 70 per cent of all college students in 20012 were over 25: only in full-time full-year courses were there more school-leavers than adults. And if 'adult' is defined as over 21, the figure is close to 80%.

The important point here is that a very large majority of learners in post-school education are returning after time spent away. The figures quoted above apply to the college, or further education sector, but the same pattern is also evident in higher education. Most of those studying in universities are mature students.

The need for a better understanding of what works for adult learners is vital - which is why the DfES funded Veronica McGivney's latest research publication, Adult Learning Pathways, as it did her earlier report A Question of Value. She examines the kinds of learning routes followed by adults, and the factors and conditions that help them to move between learning levels and environments.

She has reviewed existing literature, analysed relevant research, looked in detail at the trajectories of Adult Learning Award winners, interviewed providers, and surveyed samples of adult students across a range of curriculum areas.

Adult learning is not neat. The learners engage in learning for many different reasons and in equally diverse ways. Every learning journey is distinct, every learner individual. If one sought to draw just one essential finding from this study - and there are many more - it would be that we need to be willing to value all learning, wherever it takes place, for whatever reason it is undertaken, and whatever intentions the learner has, clear or unclear.

Learners do progress, but at different rates and in different ways.

Disparate pieces of evidence suggest that something like a third of students progress from non-accredited to mainstream and accredited courses: over a longer time-frame this proportion is almost certainly higher. Any kind of learning can lead to linear progression, but other outcomes are also of value to learners.

And, it seems, institutions are not always as good as they think they are at providing progression opportunities. Learners say follow-up courses are not always available; the gap between different levels may be too great; the quality of information and advice is highly variable.

Part-time staff, often the main or sole contact with the learner, may not themselves know of other learning opportunities; colleges continue to appear large and intimidating to many. The value of community-based provision is hard to over-estimate.

This is a very valuable piece of work, with messages for all providers. Ms McGivney has excellent sections on learning that encourages progression, and on factors which hamper it, on helping learners move to level 2, and to level 3 and beyond.

She is equally helpful on the obstacles that our structures continue to place in the way of learners, and of achieving urgent national targets. All who help to provide adult learning opportunities will benefit from this report.

Colin Flint

Ault Learning Pathways: through routes or cul de sacs. No price indicated.

116 pp, published by NIACE, ISBN1-86201-180-X

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