I used to have a student called Sue who dreamed of a career in fashion. She was in her late forties and studying level 1 English, and much of her writing focused on her love of clothes, fabric and design. Occasionally she would peer into the dressmaking lesson that took place in the classroom next to ours, but she couldn’t afford to take that paid-for course. Instead she studied English and maths, which was fully funded. It wasn’t her choice – she was unemployed and had to study literacy and numeracy or else her benefits would be stopped.
Sue is just one of the thousands of unemployed people who have been compelled by the government to attend classes to improve their employability. Called “skills conditionality”, the programme requires recipients of jobseeker’s allowance or other out-of-work benefits to take courses in English, maths, occupational skills, employability skills and English for speakers of other languages (Esol).
The benefits of learning these skills are plentiful, ranging from being able to access and complete job applications to securing paid positions and earning more money. TES recently highlighted a study led by Peter Urwin, a professor of applied economics at the University of Westminster, which found that qualifications at level 2 and below boosted earnings by as much as 12 per cent for the most disadvantaged learners.
And it’s not just the numbers that add up. Research by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Bis) earlier this year concluded that the benefits of studying English and maths include improved health and wellbeing, confidence, self-esteem and independence, as well as greater social mobility.
The effect on students is well documented, then. But what about the impact on teachers? When the jobcentre is under orders to pass the unemployed to adult learning services, it can often feel as though they’re passing the buck as well.
I enjoyed teaching Sue; she was a very pleasant woman. But her heart wasn’t in it. She was also forced to study maths and was in college for 10 hours a week, attending lessons at various times of the day and evening. She would spend hours between classes sitting in the canteen because she couldn’t afford the bus fare to get to and from college twice in one day.
She didn’t pass the exam with me and had to repeat the course. A single mother of two children, Sue also had a serious heart problem which had affected her job prospects. Previously she had worked as a dinner lady, although she was interested in doing something more creative. I did wonder if she might have benefited from help tailored to her needs, rather than just sitting and resitting the same courses in English and maths.
Adult education body Niace proposes a less rigid, more bespoke learning journey for people like Sue, which it calls the Citizens’ Curriculum. As well as literacy and numeracy, this teaches practical subjects such as financial literacy, and digital, civic and health skills.
“We know that getting people into work provides the best route out of poverty, and people who are unemployed should expect help where they need it to find and excel in work,” says Stephen Evans, Niace’s deputy chief executive. “But we also know that the current system needs improving.”
He adds: “Niace has been arguing for a Citizens’ Curriculum approach, which would allow unemployed people, Jobcentre Plus advisers and training providers to work together to deliver a package of learning around the needs of the individual where the outcome that is measured is employment, rather than an accumulation of qualifications.”
Another point to consider is the impact that mandated learners have on a teacher’s results. All teachers are judged on their success rates, and students who haven’t chosen to be there – especially in the post-compulsory sector – can have a significant effect. Certainly Sue wasn’t bothered when she failed the exam. In fact, I think she was relieved as it meant she didn’t have to go on to a higher level, which would have been harder work.
Students who are there against their will may have a detrimental effect on the rest of the class, too. In response to a consultation on the skills conditionality policy in 2011, the Association of Colleges warned that mandated learners could be “disruptive”, adding: “Individuals who have been ‘forced’ to attend training are rarely as motivated as those who have actively sought it out.”
A fellow literacy teacher holds regular drop-in study sessions where her students can catch up on any area of their work. During one session at the end of the last academic year, 10 strangers walked in, sent by the jobcentre to work on their CVs. The teacher had no idea who they were and didn’t have time to rework everyone’s CV. And all the time she was helping them, she was having to ignore her usual students. “I’m a literacy teacher, not a careers adviser,” she told me.
Shoehorning these learners into classes with available spaces, rather than setting up courses that are specifically relevant to the unemployed, is perhaps unavoidable – especially as funding in further education becomes even tighter and we are expected to fit more bums on seats. But while providers might welcome the extra funding that comes with the jobseekers, teachers who are already stretched can be less enthusiastic.
In many cases, forcing jobseekers to take lessons in basic skills including English and maths does enable them to find work and secure better, more highly paid jobs. However, the pressure on educators to help them succeed should also be noted. After all, if demotivated, under-pressure teachers decide they’ve had enough, they could end up looking for work alongside their former learners.