Activity and Learning Agreement Pilots – Programme Theory Evaluation
Learning Agreement Provision (Working Paper 4)
Page R, Johnson C, Munro M
Report RR121, Department for Children, Schools and Families, June 2009
a study commissioned by the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF)
The Activity and Learning Agreement Pilots were launched in 12 areas of England in April 2006. Activity Agreements were designed for young people (aged 16 or 17) not in employment, education or training (NEET) and operate in eight of the 12 areas. Learning Agreements were aimed at 16 to 17 year olds in jobs without training (JWT) and also operated in eight of the 12 pilots areas. Under a Learning Agreement (LAP), young people took part in agreed activities, which included undertaking a designated course.
This paper is part of the programme theory strand of the Learning Agreement Pilots evaluation. This is a realist evaluation method which focuses on testing some of the key ‘theories’ which underlie the LAP policy to identify which components of the policy work (or not), how, for whom, why, and in what circumstances.
The paper is based on research undertaken among LAP Advisers, training providers, and young people in three Connexions Partnership areas. The aim of this particular focused study was to gather evidence in relation to two theories about LAP provision, in particular the range of provision on offer and the enablers and constraints on brokerage arrangements:
The ‘menu of choice’ theory : If the policy provides a ‘menu of choice’ to the young person there is a greater likelihood of being able to provide them with learning activities they need and want in order to progress. The subject of the learning on offer may not be the most important or appealing aspect to the young person, rather the opportunity to learn in a setting that is ‘not like school’ (eg at work or in an open learning centre) or using a mode of learning which is work rather than classroom-based.
The ‘broker’ theory: For an agreement to work, the broker must access provision that meets young people’s needs, and to do this effectively a) they need to be fully informed about the range of provision available to them, b) they may need to negotiate with the young person about what provision best suits them/ is most appropriate and c) the provision needs to be responsive and available when and where the young person can do it.
The study took place between March and May 2008, in three Connexions Partnership areas. It involved three stages: eight mini-focus groups with LAP Advisers; 24 depth interviews with young people who had participated in the LAP; and 15 depth interviews with learning or training providers. In addition, the research team also referred to previous transcripts undertaken as part of the process evaluation of the LAP pilots, which helped to inform the development of the topic guides. Originally it was also planned to conduct up to eight ‘matched’ interviews with employers who had been actively involved in the LAP, but this proved infeasible as most of the young people who took part in the study either did not involve their employer, or did not want their employer to be approached about the research.
Co-location could strengthen Adviser-provider partnerships
Advisers generally felt well-informed about available provision in their local area and kept up-to-date through a variety of formal and informal structures. In one area, some Advisers were co-located within providers and this was felt to be critical not just to keeping informed but to building buy-in from providers and helping providers to understand more about dealing with the needs of young people in jobs without training.
In the same area, local ‘buddy meetings’ between Advisers and providers were useful for identifying patterns of unmet demand or where provision was available but needed to be delivered in a different way. Also in this area, a dedicated role of Learning Development Adviser had been created: these staff specialised in sourcing less common provision and filling gaps. In other areas, where this role was only one aspect of what general Learning Agreement Advisers did, there were fewer examples of new provision being specifically developed to meet the needs of young people and employers.
Some providers more flexible than others
With some exceptions, private training providers were generally found to be more responsive than colleges, which faced greater constraints on their flexibility to run roll-on, roll-off provision as well as placing more emphasis internally on meeting their mainstream targets. Many private training providers in particular had worked flexibly to meet the specific needs of individual young people. However, there were resource constraints involved in this and it was also more difficult for those based in larger, rural areas.
Many courses widely available, but some specific gaps
In two of the areas, Advisers were generally happy with the range of provision available and felt that this had improved as the pilot progressed. In the other area, there was felt to be a general lack of work-based and specialist provision, which meant that key skills and general courses such as customer service were more commonly used as a fall-back.
Specific gaps could be in a particular subject or in a particular locality. Construction training existed but it was difficult for many young people in jobs without training to get access to it, due to the amount of competition for places. Other gaps were identified in more specialised areas such as window manufacturing, carpet fitting, provision for rural industries, and courses in the creative industries. Some young people were working in occupations for which there was no relevant NVQ qualification at Level 1. These issues led to some cases where the course could ‘pick itself’ as there was only one option. However, this was not necessarily a deterrent for young people as long as it fitted with what they wanted to do.
Funding criteria limit the ‘menu’
The LAP offer is limited to certain courses on Section 96 of the LSC Learning Aims Database, and excludes short courses of fewer than ten guided learning hours, and stand-alone NVQs at Level 2. Advisers and providers alike advocated the use of short courses as an engagement tool (especially for employers, and for young people who had low confidence about returning to learning). In one area, short courses were being ‘bundled’ together with other courses to form a coherent package which met the funding criteria, or Apprenticeships were broken down into their component parts, so that learners had the option of doing their learning in smaller units. Generally the limits on funding were felt to constrain types of provision such as tasters and short courses which could be the most appropriate starting points for some young people in jobs without training.
Engaging young people: what do brokers need to offer in the ‘menu of choice’?
Young people in jobs without training came to the LAP from a variety of different contexts in terms of prior qualifications, past experiences of school/college, and whether they liked their current job. Advisers stressed that each young person was different and had to be treated on a case-by-case basis. However, the common factors identified as engaging young people were:
Being able to offer learning that leads somewhere. This did not necessarily have to be related to the young person’s current job – it could be a key skills qualification (to gain entry to another course or type of work that required C grades in maths and English). Some learners were doing aspiration-led vocational qualifications, with a view to changing to a different type of work, although these were often more difficult to broker because of the need to have some form of voluntary work placement which could provide an opportunity for gaining work-based evidence.
Progression was important to many of the young people and some had even done more than one course within the LAP. In order to make learning more attractive, some courses were being broken down into ‘smaller steps’, for example doing the Technical Certificate component of an Apprenticeship. Offering courses in such a way was felt to build up young people’s confidence over time, as it was less daunting for them to sign up for a shorter course, while still allowing them flexibility to complete the full Apprenticeship qualification at their own pace.
Help with travel, or brokering learning that comes to the young person. Advisers mentioned that travel was a key barrier for some young people in terms of both cost and the time it could take to make journeys using public transport. This was a particular problem for, but not limited to, rural areas. Ways around this tended to be ad hoc and dependent on the goodwill of Advisers or providers, therefore it is questionable how sustainable they would be if an LAP-style policy were to be rolled out nationally. Examples included Advisers providing lifts for young people, liaising with providers to arrange dedicated transport for small groups of learners, or finding providers who would make home visits or visit at times outside of their usual hours. In a few cases, discretionary funding was used to pay towards travel, if this was a significant barrier.
Sourcing provision that can fit around work. This was particularly important for young people who were doing learning that was un-related to their current job and/or did not want their employer to be involved. Many young people worked irregular hours and needed the flexibility of an open learning centre, or of assessor visits at times that fitted into their shifts, including early mornings, evenings and weekends. However, some providers were not able to offer this level of flexibility or were doing so as a ‘loss leader’. In some areas Advisers had tried to broker distance learning courses but raised doubts about how appropriate this was for this client group of young people.
What makes brokerage more straightforward?
The factors which made brokerage easier were:
- Strong partnerships with providers. Factors which could help facilitate this included co-location, regular meetings between Advisers and providers, and having dedicated Learning Development Advisers who had specific responsibility for brokering less common provision and filling gaps.
- Flexible provision that could start fairly soon, hence roll-on, roll-off provision was often preferred to college courses which had fixed start dates. Long delays while waiting for a course to start could deter some young people and their employers.
- Employer support was critical if the young person wanted to do a work-based qualification such as an Apprenticeship or NVQ related to their current job.
What makes brokerage difficult?
The following circumstances made brokerage more difficult, but not impossible:
- When young people wanted to do an aspiration-led course, that is courses that would lead them away from their current job and towards an industry they aspired to work in. Voluntary work placements had been brokered in a small number of cases, but these were only usually possible for young people who worked part-time.
- When the young person worked irregular shifts (particularly if they also worked full-time hours). This increased the need for flexible provision including open learning and home visits from assessors.
- When the young person’s job role involved a limited range of tasks, this could mean they did not have enough opportunity to provide the full range of evidence required for certain work-based qualifications. In this situation, young people had to do a lower level or more general courses, or none at all. In one area, a ‘carousel’ system had been instigated among local farmers in order to provide experience and evidence for employees from different farms to gain a full qualification.
Brokerage had enabled some provision gaps to be filled
Advisers had sometimes been able to broker new provision to fill specific gaps in their area. This had been achieved via use of sub-contracting to bring in a wider range of providers than was originally contracted; transferring successful outreach models from partner organisations into the LAP; and brokering between young people, employers and providers to provide shared opportunities for work experience.
Generally, it was felt that providers had become more flexible as the LAP pilot had progressed, in terms of how they delivered courses (for example through the use of more drop-in sessions), and providers themselves felt that the LAP had increased their understanding of the needs of young people in jobs without training. The ways that provision was delivered, and the range of provision on the ‘menu’, had also broadened over time because of brokerage.
Activity and Learning Agreement Pilots – Programme Theory Evaluation: Learning Agreement Provision (Working Paper 4), Page R, Johnson C, Munro M. Report RR121, Department for Children, Schools and Families, 2009.
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