When is a course leisure or vocational?

3rd October 2013

This morning FE Week published a story about their concerns over loans being accessed for ‘leisure’ courses and in particular for Horticulture courses at Bicton College in Devon. Their argument is that loans should ‘be prioritised for adults wanting to go to university, into work or to do an apprenticeship’.

The Institute of Horticulture estimate that the total value of output for the horticulture industry in the UK is £9 billion per annum and provides regular employment for over 37,000 people. As their homepage explains, ‘Many people see horticulture as gardening and horticulturists are therefore gardeners. But that is to take a very limited view of a broad and important industry which is vital to the health and quality of life of our nations.’

It is this trap that this article may have fallen into.

This is not an unfamiliar attitude to lifelong learning. We have been here before with ‘cake decorating’, ‘floristry’ and ‘Pilates’. Again these are areas where thousands of micro and small businesses thrive and are a vibrant part of our economy. As NIACE has said before – you can’t tell the motivation of a learner by looking at the title of a course, a point made, eloquently by the late Baroness David as long ago as 1991 when the government first proposed differentiating between different courses.

As she questioned, aren’t the terms ‘vocational’ and ‘leisure’ unreliable ones in adult education, especially when applied to classes?

She illustrated this with examples she had been sent from an adult education college. In a Spanish class there was one student learning the language to be able to communicate with his grandchildren and another who was an immigration officer at Heathrow who needed the language for his job. Both intended to go on to take GCSE. She went on to make the point that others will not take exams and then questioned, ‘is that class vocational or leisure?’

Baroness David gave two more examples. Firstly of Louise who joined a sculpture class when her child was old enough to go to a playgroup. Louise compiled an art portfolio and intended to become an art therapist. Secondly, Michael who joined a life-drawing class when he lost his job, but went on to take A-level Art. After gaining a Grade A he then retrained as a teacher.

How many adults, especially women, gain confidence from returning to study in a familiar or comfortable area? Only then does their confidence grow and their horizons expand enough for them to contemplate more formal study and progression.  There are no greater examples of this than the stories we share every year for Adult Learners’ Week.

There is clearly a role for good information, advice and guidance to help adults make the right choices. This must be informed by local Labour Market Intelligence which, in itself, needs to inform what’s on offer locally.  Surely adults deserve the opportunity to learn what they both want to and need to. A system that does not provide this lets down learners and employers alike. However if one of the aims of 24+ Advanced Learning Loans is to encourage individuals to make a greater investment in their own learning, then we should not be too hasty in our judgments of whether the learning they have chosen to invest in is worthwhile.

The move to look at learner outcomes might help inform views on whether particular courses are helping people into employment or onto further learning. Whether or not learning leads to a job it results in many wider benefits, including confidence and self esteem, which support people’s employability skills. We should be celebrating the fact that many people recognise the value of choosing to invest in their own learning in this way.