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An Evaluation of Adult Learners’ Week 2005
Page R, Pollard E
a study commissioned by the National Institute for Adult and Continuing Education
In May 2005, the National Institute for Adult and Continuing Education (NIACE) commissioned IES to conduct an independent evaluation of Adult Learners’ Week (ALW) 2005. The new evaluation builds on the previous year’s evaluation, and specifically aims to:
This evaluation placed a greater focus on the involvement, linkages and cross-working between organisations and on the campaign’s sustainability.
The evaluation consisted of five stages:
What is ALW?
ALW is a permissive structure which has grown organically over the past 14 years. A diverse range of organisations are involved for a wide range of reasons and thus hope to achieve a variety of outcomes from their involvement. The variety and flexibility with which ALW can be used is vital to ensure its relevance to, and the enthusiasm of, national, regional and local level stakeholders.
The aims of ALW are thus wide-ranging and vary between organisations. They include celebrating learning and existing learners, promoting learning opportunities to potential learners, providing information, advice and guidance about learning opportunities, lobbying policymakers and increasing the profile of adult learning. National level stakeholders tended to focus on the profile and awareness of adult learning, and the importance of drawing in high level political support and encouraging debate. Regional level stakeholders focused more on celebration, with regional awards ceremonies creating a special atmosphere in which learner achievements were recognised and providing a focus for media attention. However locally, the main aims of ALW tended to be focused on practical aspects such as widening participation and increasing enrolment in learning opportunities. Although those involved have different perspectives of what ALW is about, all feel the aims of the Week are clear and appropriate for them.
Also, a key aspect of ALW for the range of stakeholders was its broad view of education, reflecting the wide range of reasons why people learn, including to increase confidence or for health reasons. In this way, ALW recognises the whole range of learning opportunities rather than simply skills-based or employment-focused learning.
ALW was seen to be important as it could be a stimulus and impetus for action and for joint-working. It gives adult learning a regular ‘place in the calendar’ around which to focus efforts of partnerships and with which to engage the media. ALW can also provide the foundation for more sustained effort rather than just a short burst of activity. Indeed, whilst nationally ALW activity is largely contained within one week, at a local level there is some evidence to suggest that ALW is used as the basis for year-long partnerships and for the culmination of year long learning activities.
NIACE suggest themes around which providers and organisers can base their activities. Feedback indicates that the themes were not viewed as ‘hard and fast’ or prescriptive, yet could provide structure and focus if providers struggled to be inspired, and could provide ‘hooks’ to secure funding from sponsor organisations (as a way to align with organisations’ values and objectives). This freedom to engage in ALW in the most appropriate way was critical given the reliance on voluntary time and in-kind support.
How ALW works
A wide-range of organisations and individuals from across the country are involved with ALW and they support the campaign both with funds and with resources such as staff time and expertise, and use of venues. The range of stakeholders, their enthusiasm, and their level and variety of support is critical to the success and sustainability of ALW.
Nationally there are many organisations involved with ALW, but the core funders are European Social Fund (ESF) and Department for Education and Skills (DfES), along with University for Industry who provide the central helpline resource to answer queries from callers as a result of ALW publicity. At a local level, providers are encouraged to promote the use of the learndirect number but may view this as opening up competition, particularly if they want to increase enrolments as a result of their engagement with ALW.
The Learning and Skills Council (LSC) has some involvement at a national level in ALW but local LSCs (LLSCs) are involved inconsistently across areas, and this has a significant impact on coverage of, and the range and scale of activity for, ALW. LSC support was felt to be critical as it is a key body charged with the funding and planning of adult and community learning. Stakeholders believed that working with LLSCs might become easier as structures become more regionalised. Some even suggested that LSC involvement should be made a requirement by the national office.
A key role in encouraging, organising, monitoring and communicating activity is played by the regional co-ordinators contracted by NIACE. Essentially these co-ordinators act as local champions for ALW. They work at varying levels of geography (or catchment areas). Some cover government office regions (such as the South East), while others cover smaller ‘learning regions’ or counties. Working at a sub-regional level can allow ALW organisation to mirror existing activities focused around learning and closer working with local providers, but can present challenges to securing funding if boundaries do not correspond very closely with those of possible sponsors. The lack of a uniform geographic structure also creates difficulties for communication and dissemination and thus in gaining a clear picture of ALW activity across the country.
Limited communication and connectivity is noticed when examining the layers of ALW activity. Whilst many organisations work together to provide support for ALW, nationally, regionally and locally, overall there is a lack of connectivity between these layers of activity. It is NIACE that critically provides the central co-ordinating role – filtering messages and information from national bodies through to the regions and to local areas, and vice versa, and they are currently working to try to improve this. However national stakeholders appear to have limited understanding of how ALW operates on the ground, and local providers may still not feel part of a national campaign.
There is also little communication or working between regions and silos of activity can develop. Although it should be acknowledged that this would be difficult to achieve for many co-ordinators, as ALW forms only a small part of their job role. There is close communication, however, between local providers and regional co-ordinators, with many providers using their regional co-ordinators as a sounding board or for help if things are not going as planned.
What happened this year?
There are a number of difficulties with obtaining an accurate picture of the nature and scale of events that took place for ALW this year; not least is the fact that registration on the NIACE online calendar is encouraged rather than made compulsory (in line with the general ethos of the campaign). Although likely to underestimate activity, the calendar does provide an indicator and this year it recorded over 1,800 events across the country. The number of events varied by region which may reflect the distribution or density of the population, but is also likely to be a symptom of the fluid structures for the organisation and support of ALW activity.
Taster sessions were the most common type of event held during the Week, although feedback suggests that attendance could be lower than expected (for the effort expended). Most events were open to all, to try to reach as many learners and potential learners as possible. The calendar also indicated that a wide range of organisations was involved in supporting and hosting activities. The participation of libraries had noticeably increased this year, whereas involvement of FE colleges appeared to have reduced. This could be a result of new recording methods used by the calendar (‘hotlinks’ instead of a full activity listing) or, as raised by some stakeholders, a real fall in participation because of changing priorities and limited resources.
Awards ceremonies are an important part of the celebratory aspect of ALW, and are held at national, regional and, in some cases, local levels. These ceremonies enable funders and sponsors to meet learners and see for themselves the importance and impact learning has had on peoples’ lives. Feedback indicated that the awards process and the ceremonies themselves had improved on last year, particularly the national event which was ‘slicker, smarter and more streamlined’. Ceremonies also provide an opportunity for ‘human interest’ stories to gain media coverage.
Analysis of media coverage found over 1,000 press articles mentioned ALW, although this is slightly lower than in 2004; the national launch was featured on Channel 4 and there were prominent articles appearing in the Mirror, Guardian, Financial Times and Daily Telegraph. Keeping the Week ‘fresh’ and the media engaged is a critical challenge for the medium-term sustainability of ALW. Media coverage raises awareness of the campaign and of the importance and diversity of adult learning, and raises the profile of organisations involved in the Week (providing them with a ‘return’ on their participation). It is important that the Week receives coverage in the full range of media to reach the widest audience possible, and providers may need to work together (rather than in competition) and may need support to effectively engage the media.
There were over 3,000 callers to the national helpline regarding ALW. The demographic pattern of callers replicates the involvement in adult and community education more widely, with females, younger and more qualified people over-represented when compared to the adult population. However, the majority of callers to the helpline were not engaging in learning at that time, and half of callers said they were looking for information about learning for the first time, which could indicate that they are ‘new learners’. Although it should be noted that there is a spectrum of learning among those that are currently, from frequent to first-time learners.
Impact of ALW
Measuring or quantifying the value of, or benefits to, ALW is very difficult given the wide ranging and amorphous nature of ALW and organisations’ and individuals’ varying motivations towards involvement. However, generally ALW was felt to have a positive and worthwhile impact, and to deliver value for money – enabling a wide range of activity and focusing media attention for a relatively small outlay. More specifically, benefits of ALW included the following.
However, the impact of ALW could be extended if a more consistent regional approach could be achieved. Some government office regions have several co-ordinators, while others have none. The involvement of higher education providers and employers could be encouraged in order to increase the range of learners and organisations involved. Similarly it was suggested that there was potential to increase engagement with the voluntary and community sector to help to diversify the types of learners that ALW reaches.
Although ALW is a long running campaign, now in its 14th year, it faces a period of uncertainty about funding with the forthcoming changes to the structural funds (eg ESF support). For the medium- to long-term sustainability of the Week it is therefore vital to diversify the range of organisations that fund ALW.
Conclusions and recommendations
ALW involves and continues to encourage participation from a wide range of stakeholders, and is, in the main, successfully meeting the aims and objectives of these. It provides the impetus for new learning activities to be developed, for existing activities to be branded and thus reach a wider audience; and for organisations to work together to achieve outcomes that outweigh the sum of their individual activities. It is generally regarded as having a positive impact and delivering value for money, which takes into account the social side or softer outcomes of learning.
However, the research has identified a number of ideas and challenges for the future of ALW. These include the following.
An Evaluation of Adult Learners’ Week 2005, Page R, Pollard E. , National Institute for Adult and Continuing Education, 2005.
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