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FE and social inclusion: understanding the processes of participation

Beth Crossan, Glasgow Caledonian University, John Field, University of Warwick, Jim Gallacher, Glasgow Caledonian University and Barbara Merrill, University of Warwick

Paper presented at SCUTREA, 30th Annual Conference, 3-5 July 2000, University of Nottingham

Since the mid-1980s, further education colleges have been far the largest providers of adult education in Britain. In particular, as the mass provider of education and training for adults, FE colleges have become a major second chance route for the disadvantaged.

So far, the FE sector has attracted little attention from the adult education research community. As a result, relatively little is known about the impact of FE upon adult learners. The paper arises from the life stories of people interviewed as part of a research project funded by the Department of Enterprise and Lifelong Learning in Scotland, aimed at identifying practices to encourage participation among those who have traditionally been excluded from further education.

Policy context

The study is set in the context of the social inclusion and lifelong learning agendas that underpin many current policy developments in Scotland and the wider UK (DfEE, 1998, Scottish Office, 1998a). As the knowledge ‘haves’ continue to gain most from participation in education, lifelong learning itself may be unintentionally contributing to social exclusion (Fryer 1997; OECD 1998).

This Scottish Executive has stressed the role of education, particularly FE, in promoting social inclusion. Nevertheless, participation and achievement in any form of post compulsory education are uneven, and certain groups continue to be under-represented. This has led to a rise in FE’s profile, and to a lesser extent its status (Gallacher and Thompson, 1999; Kennedy 1997).

Thinking about participation and non-participation

Evidence of a ‘learning divide’ is remarkably persistent. Largely on the basis of quantitative survey data, certain groups have been identified as non-participants, including lower socio-economic groups, women with dependent children, unemployed, minority ethnic groups and those in rural areas (McGivney, 1990). We wanted to develop a more subjective understanding of the complex processes by engaging with the voices of the actors themselves.

As such the processes and complexities which underpin the transition from non-participation to participation have to be understood in terms of structural barriers and human agency within the context of people’s lives. For some participating in education was not a priority when they were struggling to hold their lives together because of homelessness or poverty.

Researching social inclusion through biographies

The study focused on three groups: new learners, early entrants (people who completed a course of study in 1997), and non-participants. While this paper focuses on adults, 16-19 year olds were also included. As researchers we found it refreshing that the funders stressed the use of qualitative methodology, enabling us to use biographical interviews and focus groups. Biographies of the participants were used in order to connect past and present lives towards attitudes and involvement, or not, in FE. Statistical data was gathered from existing sources as background information. Four case study institutions were identified. Senior management and tutors were also interviewed to obtain a broader picture.

Participants were recruited through the four case study colleges.

Non-participants were recruited using two main strategies:

‘Snowballing’ - contacting non-participant friends and family members of the new entrants;

Contacting non-participants through places where people at risk of social exclusion may go, including youth projects, family centres, and job centres.

We value life histories as a research tool as ‘interviewing offers researchers access to people’s ideas, thoughts and memories in their own words rather than in the words of the researcher’ (Reinharz, 1992:19). Biographies are becoming an increasingly popular method in UK adult education research (Edwards, 1993, West, 1996; Merrill, 1999) as a framework for revealing the subjectivity, complexity and context of human behaviour. Biographies enable participants to reflect upon, interpret, give meaning to and construct past events and experiences within a social context (Denzin, 1989, Rosenthal, 1993).

Although biographies are individual, shared experiences of gender and class are evident when comparing the stories. Participants were keen that their voices were heard by policy makers so that the barriers to participation for people in similar socio-economic situations can be broken down.

Impact of earlier life experiences

Many participants lived in working class city areas of West and East Coast Scotland, and one rural area was also included. Working class culture, roles and attitudes are prevalent despite the decline in traditional manual jobs. Many of the men in their 30s and 40s were unemployed without skills and qualifications. For some this had led to personal difficulties; divorce, alcoholism, imprisonment. Participants and non-participants both identified a range of negative issues, structural, personal and institutional, which either made learning a struggle or prevented them from learning. Initial experiences of schooling were shaped by class and gender. Most left at the earliest possible age with few or no qualifications for the attraction of a wage. This was associated with the traditional working class culture which in many cases led to antithetical attitudes to education (Willis, 1977). One man said that anyone who went to college in his area was considered a ‘cissy’. Many also had negative experiences of school which as an adult undermined their confidence of returning to learn:

Well if I think back on it the reasons I am apprehensive to go to college or a classroom situation must be based on past fears or experiences. I don’t seem to do too well in the classroom situation. (non-participant, male)

Several women became pregnant in their teens preventing further participation:

I was 17 and I was pregnant with my first wee boy, so that was me, and after that it’s just been kids constant. I wish I had never had any weans (children). I wish I could have been a hairdresser or a dancer and stayed on at one of these things that I liked…That I had my own place and had my own life, because it is hard. That’s how my 2 boys don’t stay with me because I wasn’t able to cope. I couldn’t cope with my own life. I was pregnant when I was 17, so I had one when I was 18 and then one when I was 19.

Exclusionary issues

Colleges have changed faster than people’s perceptions of them (Merrill, 2000). School experiences may be carried with people through their life, and many rejected FE as resembling school, as a place where either ‘different’ people go or as full of teenagers. While many felt comfortable about learning at a community or outreach centre, they lacked the confidence to attend classes at the main FE campus:

I think it would be off-putting to be honest. I don’t think I would have gone to a college. The fact that this was where it was …and I knew there were going to be people like myself – what I’m trying to say is I wouldn’t go into a student class, people in their 20s, because I would feel out of place and to my mind people in their twenties will pick up things quicker. I wouldn’t be happy at any college… I would never have entered a beginners course in a college because I would feel stupid (new,entrant, male).

Several said they would not have the confidence to walk into a college and ask for information about courses.

For women, lack of childcare facilities or their poor quality was among the highest barriers. This related to working class women’s attitudes, where financial resources are limited and there was a feeling of guilt about leaving a young child. In this situation, many experience mixed, and in some ways conflicting emotions about their role:

I would like to go to college but that’s not possible. I think I would feel guilty about leaving (son) with a childminder or crèche …I can’t really do it.

On some FE programmes childcare is provided free but sometimes this is not enough:

I had a nursery place…You got your expenses as in your bus fares every month but even with that it was too much…I couldn’t afford that off my benefit and try to buy clothes and run the house as well. I just felt that it was too much (non-participant).

Financial problems were a common issue. This reflects a number of inter-related issues such as low income due to insecure employment or unemployment and structure of the benefits system.

I went the first day…I thoroughly enjoyed it (college) and I came home and my fiancé wasn’t working at the time and he said ‘there’s absolutely no way we can afford this’. I’ve been to the welfare rights officer and I’ve been down to the Social Security and there’s no way. Because we are two single people living together we basically have to pay full rent…It was just a nightmare. We were going to end up worse off than we were and I spent the whole night crying my eyes out…. I was very, very disappointed (new entrant, female).

Often structural and personal factors interacted and interrelated, making the search for a single or primary exclusionary factor an illusory one. Some non-participants actively chose not to return to learn. Some had other life priorities as one young man explained ‘if you are living on the streets you can’t think about education’. Some questioned the value of education. One unemployed man whose friend went to college but still did not get a job asked ‘so what’s the point?’

From exclusion to inclusion

Similarly, the processes through which adults become engaged in learning often involve the complex interaction of a number of factors, rather than any single factor or planned decision-making process. Nevertheless, participants identified a number of key motivating factors, some marked by gender differences.

An important motive which emerged was that of self-development, particularly with respect to women. Most of the women are working-class so class factors intersected with those of gender. Time spent in the home looking after children, which none of them regretted, allowed the women to reflect upon their lives and their identity. Wanting to learn for self-development and hence change their identity to become a person rather than somebody’s wife or mother were critical factors in starting courses at a college:

Well you feel that when you come here [ community learning centre] you are starting to find yourself. That might sound a bit stupid. You are not a clone or somebody else – you are starting to find your own identity although it has taken me – I won’t say how many years. (early entrant, female)

Improving employment prospects was important for many adult students, particularly men. Several unemployed men in their 40s and 50s realised that the labour market had changed and that they needed new skills and qualifications to get a job. In particular computing skills were viewed as essential:

I wanted to learn this (computing) so as I could get it on my CV. A lot of the jobs I went for – the application forms for Sainsbury’s and B & Q when I’ve applied for jobs - they all have a wee bit on them ‘do you have any computer skills or keyboarding skills?’…So that’s why I’ve done this course … (new entrant, male).

However, many knew that their courses were low level. They were largely resigned to the fact that they might never work again. Men were pessimistic (or realistic?) about regaining employment. Women became more optimistic about using learning to get employment as years at home childrearing, rather than unemployment, made them determined to enhance their career and find a space for themselves.

Learning pathways, learning careers and ‘drift’

The research revealed a wide range of interlocking social processes which facilitate, or do not, re-engagement in learning. We have referred to the processes through which people engage in education as the learning pathways which they follow. In understanding these processes we are looking at relations between the individual and society, particularly the ways in which social structures (including poverty and inequalities) constrain human agency. Some people may be able to overcome these constraints, and we are investigating the processes through which this takes place, but for others the constraints may be too strong or numerous for them to ‘break free’. In addition some non-participants actively choose not to participate in FE or any other form of formal education (particularly among excluded groups, learning is not always a positive opportunity, but rather an exercise in compulsion).

Initial participation may not result from agonised decisions. Matza’s (1963) concept of ‘drift’ may be useful in understanding the processes that lead non-participants into education:

Drift is a gradual process of movement, unperceived by the actor, in which the first stage may be accidental or unpredictable from the point of view of any theoretic frame of reference… (Matza, 1963: 29).

This is not to say that all people on the margins of education and society who become participants ‘drift’ into education. For some it is a positive, conscious and planned decision. However, the stories that some respondents told indicated notions of drift. It must also be noted that the process of drift takes place within a framework of structural constraints which may impose significant barriers to learning, and opportunities which facilitate participation. In understanding the pathways through which people come to participate in education a number of factors emerge as being of importance.

Firstly, biographies revealed the importance of critical incidents, such as divorce, bereavement or redundancy, which act as a turning point (Edwards, 1993, West, 1996, Merrill, 1999). It is the combination of changes in both barriers and motivations (or agency and structure) that may provide what Strauss describes as ‘turning points’ which force a person to ‘take stock, to re-evaluate, revise, re-see and re-judge’ (see Bloomer, 1999).For example, divorce encouraged one woman: ‘I really didn’t go out much when I was married so then I kind of had to force myself to start to go out’. Initially, she took her granddaughter to a mothers and toddlers group, leading to contact with an adult education tutor, then one course led to another at a FE outreach centre.

Involvement in other projects such as local family centres, tenants’ groups, women’s groups, community resource centres, youth projects, which often involves a considerable amount of informal contact and learning, is also important in facilitating the return to more formal learning for many adults. Such involvement may increase self-confidence, extend social networks and increase knowledge about provision with regard to FE education in a local area. One new entrant, for example, through attending courses at her local family learning centre had found out about FE courses. In addition, the staff at the Centre had given her encouragement about her abilities:

It gave me a boost because somebody with a bit of intelligence had the confidence in me to go and do it [apply for college] (new entrant, female)

The availability of community-based FE provision enabled many respondents to make the transition into learning in a more welcoming environment. Respondents were clear that without this provision they would not have taken the first step back into learning. A small number had tried courses at a college campus but did not like the atmosphere.

I like the way it’s informal, not like X [main campus]…When I first went I would go to the wrong place and they would say ‘you can’t come here and you can’t go over there’…Because you get a wee plastic card and I do two or three hours a month and they tick it, copy it and sometimes I forget to take my card in and they come after you, hounding you (new entrant, male).

Outreach centres were perceived as being more flexible, local, and ‘full of people like themselves’. Tutors were viewed as friendly; ‘you can talk to them’. However, there is evidence from this study that such centres can become too cosy and overprotective, so that learners avoid progression elsewhere.

The availability of crèche and childcare facilities was another key factor which facilitated the participation of many women in FE. Free childcare, or classes which were arranged around school hours, enabled some women to attend courses but not all colleges or programmes offered this. Many female participants described having these as ‘essential’ for participation.

Once involved in learning some participants showed evidence of developing a ‘learning career’. Learning became an important part of their identity, choosing to progress to other courses, although this may not have been their original intention upon entry. Their learner identity and learning career became strengthened through ‘significant learning experiences’ (Antikainen et al, 1996). Again a number of factors can be identified as being of importance.

A number of our respondents indicated that the atmosphere of the college and the relationships which they established with their tutors were important in enabling them to become more committed to their role as learners. The teaching approaches favoured by adult returners include being able to work at their own pace, small and informal classroom settings, tutors who can talk to them on their level and who make learning enjoyable in a relaxed atmosphere.

The support which students receive from their fellow students is also of considerable importance in the development of their learning careers. The strong structure of peer support is important in enabling many students to make the transition from ‘uncertain learners’, with an ambivalent attitude towards their role as a student, to people who are fully engaged with the learning process, and see this as a key aspect of their lives and social identity.

Well I think there is more than one reason. It was definitely to keep me up to date in computing with an eye on getting a job when my son is older. But as I came there were other things. Like B and I are great pals and we come together. I have made a lot of friends and we socialise together. Like a few of us started running and that to keep fit. (early entrant, female)

Associated with the development of learning careers, the goals which learners wish to pursue may change over time. This can be seen in the development of learning careers among a number of the women in this study. Many of them initially returned to learn for self-development and issues relating to their gender status, but tied up with this is a desire to re-enter the job market with better qualifications so that they do not return to what they perceive as dead-end jobs such as shop work. As their confidence in learning increases adult learners feel that this is possible:

It’s like once you start and you get some modules, and you know you can do the HNC, and you think well I’ll keep going because if I don’t I will be back to where I was before. And I don’t want that. I suppose I want better – I don’t mean that in a bad way – but I want different things now. Different jobs anyway. (early entrant, female)

The voices of the participants and non-participants reveal often fragmented lives. The complex processes of structure and human agency which may enable a person to cross into learning are themselves fragile. Although the emphasis of the research was on social inclusion and lifelong learning we must also accept that some adults do not want to play this game, while some may return at a later stage when other priorities have been sorted out. The ways in which FE institutions respond to the social inclusion agenda is critical to bringing in marginal learners. Taking into account the context of the lives of people in their local communities and their position in the socio-economic structure is important if FE colleges are to be successful in attracting and addressing the needs of such learners.


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This document was added to the Education-line database on 15 June 2000