Give adult learners grants rather than loans to transform life chances: Ann Marie Spry

WHILE we welcome the Government’s announcement of prioritising adult learners as part of the levelling up agenda, it takes us only so far in addressing the skills needed for adults.

How can colleges across the region best help their students following the pandemic?
How can colleges across the region best help their students following the pandemic?

It does not factor in the huge wellbeing impact that the pandemic has had on some of those adults and the barriers we need to overcome if we are to bring them back to education in a restorative and compassionate way.

There is a big piece of work that colleges and other providers need to do. Despite the pressures we face to rebuild, we must prioritise the wellbeing of learners.

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The mental wellbeing of adults has deteriorated since the pandemic began, with one in five experiencing depression in early 2021 – more than double pre-pandemic levels. We know that those from ethnic minority groups and deprived communities have particularly struggled, with many being out of work and unable to access home learning due to digital limitations.

How can colleges across the region best help their students following the pandemic?

Education providers have an important role to play in helping adults reskill and upskill, but this has to be delivered in a way that is suitable and supportive of students.

We must not be naive nor complacent about what this means for those adults – it is a big decision to change career or to come back into learning. We need to ensure the appropriate support networks are in place to help them navigate this.

The adult learner spectrum in our region is broad, so it is not just about career changes and reskilling at advanced levels, it is also about those who need to develop more fundamental skills such as English, maths, English language and digital literacy.

Low-skilled learners need the time to move up levels to be able to genuinely benefit from the prosperity associated with advanced level skills. This, in turn, will enable them to get a more sustainable role and contribute to the growth agenda.

Community centres play a major role in supporting and linking adult learners with colleges so they can receive personalised learning and career guidance. When community providers such as Jobcentre Plus and community hubs had to close due to lockdown restrictions, a connection to society and learning was severed.

We also need to be mindful of adding more pressure onto adults struggling financially, which has led us to question the suitability of the lifetime student loan element being introduced as part of the new Skills and Post-16 Education Bill.

We have seen a reluctance amongst some communities who, for cultural reasons, do not want to take out loans, and some who do not want the burden of a long-term loan because of debt concerns.

The lifetime skills guarantee and other entitlements are important in removing some fees barriers, but to enable adults in some of our communities to commit the time needed and compensate for inability to work while studying, changes are needed to recognise the value of improving skills and possibly the introduction of subsistence grants.

Learning a new skill and meeting new people are two of the five ways to wellbeing and lead to improved employment, which are huge benefits to mental health.

This reinforces that, for adults, learning and wellbeing go hand in hand, so we need to place just as much emphasis on ensuring adults feel safe and supported as we do on the teaching and learning.

Colleges have great infrastructures through tutorial and support services to provide welfare and wellbeing support for students, all of which have been vital throughout the pandemic.

Students have commented on the 
value of coming back to college on reducing feelings of isolation and recognise the positive impact on mental health.

Luminate Education Group, which includes Leeds City College, Harrogate College and Keighley College, will continue supporting adults who have been the most severely affected by the pandemic, and who need to upskill or reskill in order to secure more sustainable employment.

For adults to succeed, we need to recognise where they are starting from; some have been away from education for a long time. We need to think differently and adapt, and we need to see increased funding for the wrap-around support which is so crucial to adult success.

Ann Marie Spry is vice principal of adults at Luminate Education Group.

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