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Impact of Community Learning shown by BIS research

March 12, 2013

The impact of publicly funded community learning on individuals and society is demonstrated well in recently published research commissioned by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS).

Based on a detailed follow-up survey of community learners, the finding showed  impact in significant areas, such as:

  • 11% of respondents said they had become involved in voluntary activities as a direct result of their course, this percentage was higher amongst those from deprived areas
  • 61% said the course had given them new skills they could use in a job (higher amongst those looking for work)
  • 58% of those with children under 18 said the course had helped them become a more confident parent.

This report presents initial findings arising from a longer term commitment to assess the impact of community learning against the new objectives published in August 2012 (the research took place before then but the outcomes aligned well). This research initiative is important for all of us as adult educators. It marshalls valuable evidence to support our work in the age of austerity and it helps us think about how best to assess the wider impact of our organisation’s own provision.

In the first part of 2012, a detailed telephone survey was undertaken of 4000 learners who’d recently undertaken a course. The sample was stratified and intended to include a representative group of respondents from the different funding streams within ‘safeguarded learning’ . It is intended that this cohort will form a longitudinal study and will be re-interviewed in 2013 along with a second cohort interviewed for the first time in 2013. This quantitative study was supplemented by six qualitative workshops and 12 ‘live trackers’ (based on maintaining contact with and feedback from a sample during their ‘learning journey’).

Follow up surveys are crucial because they begin to capture the impact after the initial ‘end of course haze’ has worn off and the student is able to take a longer view. The beneficial, and at times life changing, effects on participants are well-known to adult ed aficionados but are always worth re-stating: growth in confidence, keeping ‘mind and body alive’, nurturing a desire to carry on learning, widening social contact and understanding. There is no clear border between the social and the individual; these individual benefits all play a part in making a more engaged and cohesive society.

 It is interesting too how such a diverse collection of courses help develop a range of  outcomes that contribute to crucial public policy agendas around community cohesion, parenting, public health and employability. This must be an area where we build feedback loops from what people gain from courses back to our curriculum planning. If students are gaining for example parenting or employability skills then how do we shape our curriculum planning to both maximise and recognise this process?

I was struck too by the success of community learning in encouraging voluntary involvement, an impact of particular importance to a voluntary ‘social purpose’ organisation such as the WEA.  A figure of 11% (15% in deprived communities) for the sector as a whole gives us a valuable yardstick particularly (but not exclusively) as we fashion our new ‘community engagement’ theme. It also seemed to be the case that the impact of community learning, individually and socially,is greater overall in deprived communities.

The move to a sector wide longitudinal study of the impact of community learning is of immense value and can act as a benchmark and impetus to individual providers. The interpretation offered in the BIS report is positive and subtle but I’d also liked to see the data clearly presented to enable different analyses to take place. It would also be good to identify a greater number of ‘tangible outcomes’ in areas such as health and fitness, and cultural engagement. These are not only important in the wider policy community but for us as adult educators to help us guage the longer term success of our efforts.

Finally I’ve zoned in on bits of the report of particular interest to me. A lot more is there including a detailed discussion of class fees and the balance between raising fee income and maintaining a focus on the most disadvantaged in society. Click on the link below and give the report a read.


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