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Demonstrating the ‘social purpose’ impact of adult education

April 18, 2013

Many of us in adult education are concerned with its wider and long term impact, on individuals and  society. The term ‘social purpose’ helps define this in contrast to education that has a mainly academic, leisure or vocational purpose.

‘Social purpose’ expresses the impact of education: how people’s life chances can be transformed and society changed and developed in a more democratic, equal and cohesive direction. The history of adult education is replete with inspiring examples and illustrations of this including leaders of the labour and co-operative movement in the first half of last century and later the contribution of adult education to the women’s movement and community development .

In addition to individual stories and case studies, there is also a strong case for gathering this information – what students go on to do – on a systematic and quantifiable basis. There is always a temptation to be mesmerised by our success stories and not have an accurate overall picture, or the ability to benchmark against other providers. It is also a way of capturing what students get out of courses as opposed to what we put in; often this can be surprising with people making use of learning in quite different and unexpected ways.  Finally a more accurate view of what works and what doesn’t is invaluable in curriculum development and planning.

This is not only relevant to adult educators. Government and others are asking similar questions: we know that students feel overwhelmingly positive about their courses and would recommend their friends to join up themselves. Lots of activities generate a feel good factor but how far does this have a social impact that justifies scarce resources? Do students go on to form or join voluntary organisations; are they less likely to use hospital and GP services; are vulnerable and isolated students making initial steps towards re-engagement?

My last blog reported on research undertaken by BIS that followed up students from publicly funded Community Learning and showed a range of very positive outcomes. My interest here is how educational providers, like ours – the WEA- can use follow-up research like this to assess and improve our work. We now organise our curriculum priorities into four ‘themes’: employability, health and wellbeing, community engagement and culture. All of these are about the social impact of our programmes; this outward and outcome-based approach challenges usual forms of evaluation.

Our starting point is to conduct a survey of our own former students that mirrors that of BIS (i.e. asks the same questions) and the results will soon be available. The great advantage of mirroring BIS is that we will then benchmark our impact against Community Learning as a whole. At the same time, the WEA will want to ask some different questions to those asked by BIS. For example whilst BIS has some useful questions on employment and on beginning voluntary activity (each sub-divided in various ways so that different sorts of outcomes can be seen), their questions on health and wellbeing are very broad. The WEA may want more specific information both about health improvements and community activity around health issues. It is likely then that our next survey (and aims for next year) will be based on a mix of BIS and WEA survey questions.

Incidentally outcomes for a sub-set of students can be seen e.g. employment outcomes for women students or health outcomes for those from areas of multiple deprivation. There is considerable scope to look at outcomes for different student groups.

This focus on impact and outcomes means re-thinking how we develop and plan our curriculum. We need to start from establishing the intended outcomes/impact and then work back from there. To take as an example we might find that currently 15% of students go on to take up voluntary activity and that we aim to increase this to 20%. It would then be a case of how we plan and develop our curriculum to achieve this.

 It won’t necessarily mean that we need a whole lot of courses designed to lead to particular impacts. Adult education courses often work best when they start from the students’ immediate interests and build from there. The experience of education is fluid and intended outcomes – and horizons – change. The challenge is to find the point of connection between the student’s initial interest, the course process and future outcomes. For example someone may join a health and fitness class to lose weight and end up losing weight and joining a local charity/campaigning group around a particular health condition. Equally those on the same course frequently achieve quite different outcomes; a maths course can help someone with work tasks and someone else with their children’s homework, etc. All of this means that we need a range of different educational strategies to build pathways between courses and different outcomes.

This can mean many things; it may mean new courses or mini-modules, it could be trying to embed this in existing courses (additional learning outcomes or records of achievement) or it may be more about information and advice and strengthening partnerships and pathways.

Finding different ways of doing this will be the subject of a future blog.


From → Adult Education

  1. Hugh Humphrey permalink

    One point worth highlighting, I think, is that social purpose is surely self evident in 3 of our 4 themes so not that much needs to be done to embed it in Employability, Community Engagement and Health and Well Being . What perhaps needs working out, as touched upon in your blog, are the different stages by which we can demonstrate social impact. The first stage might simply be joining the class, as for many people this will be an important form of engagement. Then there is developing critical thinking and thirdly demonstrating an awareness of the social relevance of the course. Fourthly, it may be possible for the student to record at some point how from fellow students they have come to understand some new points of view. Fifthly, there is how they interact with family, friends and colleagues talking about their course, perhaps cascading ideas. There is a saying,’Educate the mother and you educate the whole family’. Then social impact may be demonstrated through joining or forming some sort of community group and finally there is the ultimate stage of actually achieving some social change (hopefully for the good) through this community action. I am sure there are other stages which could be added but the point I am trying to make is that there are many ways in which social purpose can be demonstrated and there may various stages a student goes through in achieving social impact. Demonstrating impact may at first seem a problem to some tutors, depending on their subject, but most of the stages mentioned could quite easily and simply recorded during or at the end of their course. Is it worth developing further this idea of going through various stages? Or perhaps it has already been done, or best left for each tutor to devise their own approach. What do you think?

  2. joaniepthemadhatter permalink

    Reblogged this on JoanieP The Mad Hatters' Corner.

  3. Marie permalink

    Hello Pete – I work in adult education in Australia and I’m just embarking on a Masters looking at social impact measurement in the context of adult and community ed. Tools like SROI and social accounting/auditing are obviously getting a lot of attention in the social enterprise ‘space’ but I’m finding limited references within adult ed research. Is that your impression as well or are you conscious of research work in this area?

  4. Marie permalink

    Great Pete – many thanks

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