Widening participation in education

David Gallagher

At NCFE, our core purpose is to advance and promote learning and through this changethe lives of people of all ages and from all backgrounds through the enabling power of education.

With this in mind, I’d like to focus on the social mobility agenda and widening participation in education for those who want to learn and develop themselves.

We know through copious research that a lack of access to learning is a huge barrier when it comes to people building a better life for themselves and there is a real correlation between adult education and economic prosperity / life chances. For adults trapped in a cycle of disadvantage, accessible education has a vital contribution to make in bridging the gap into the workplace and helping people to become the best they can be.

It’s about recognising that in learning one size doesn’t fit all and working collaboratively as a sector during a time of change, uncertainty and ambiguity; taking the policies and making them work for the success of the learner who should always be at the heart of the system.

This means awarding organisations coming together with policy makers, employers, providers and local partnerships supporting in developing progression pathways to match regional skills gaps. Ensuring that people outside of the sector know and understand the value of adult education and technical education in supporting economic growth and social mobility.

You may have come across our Fully Functional campaign which is calling for a change to funding to create a level playing field for English and maths. The campaign addresses the fact that currently learners who achieve a D (grade 3) at GCSE have to keep resitting that GCSE until they pass - they can’t progress until that happens and this creates a cycle of failure and really knocks confidence.  This in turn means that these learners are unlikely to engage with education as an adult as they’ve lost that motivation.

By giving these learners an opportunity to sit an alternative assessment such as Functional Skills, we are treating people as individuals who learn in different ways and respond to different things. We undertook research as part of this campaign and across the 2000 people we surveyed across the UK, over 70% said people should be given the opportunity to learn in a way that suits them.

Confidence and a positive mindset cannot be underestimated when it comes to learners engaging successfully with education and securing sustainable employment. In fact, in a piece of research that we conducted in conjunction with Reed in Partnership and Harvard University, it was found that mindset over skillset was by far the most important factor for employers when they are recruiting.

With this in mind, we need to start from the beginning with many people, using small chunks of learning to build up their sense of achievement, enhance their confidence and equip them with those vital transferable skills that they need – communication skills, working with people, presenting themselves well. We need to think way beyond the traditional entry points in education and go right back to the start.

Of course when it comes to social mobility and adult education, the issue is multi-faceted and digital exclusion presents another huge challenge in the modern world. Digital Skills has recently been highlighted as a focus area for all regions, as a result of a skills gap analysis in Mayoral Combined Authorities (MCAs) and Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and it is expected that within the next 20 years, all jobs will contain some element of digital skills and knowledge making this an almost mandatory employability requirement. So how do we ensure that we equip the most amount of people with these skills in an accessible way to enable more people to participate and progress in the labour market?

We are determined to support more people to be able to access education no matter what their background, circumstances or disadvantages they face. By engaging with learners right from school to later life, we are trying to change the historical attitudes towards vocational and technical education by offering people alternative ways of learning and giving them the tools they need to improve their life and career chance.

The quality of technical education has never been higher with the introduction of the upcoming T Levels, the government’s commitment to apprenticeships, and the Functional Skills Reform. There has never been a better time to engage with technical learning and we believe that NCFE is fantastically placed to help learners get the most from technical education and reach their full potential.

You can find out more about our #FullyFunctional campaign here.