Are participation and achievement the same thing?

18 October 2017

Last week’s further education statistics provided some thoughtful reading.  As a researcher who reads a lot of adult educational statistical reports from across Europe, I’m always impressed by the amount of statistical analysis we go into in England.  The same can’t quite always be said for other UK nations, as well as our colleagues across the EU-28.  We English certainly believe that constant weighing, will make the pig fatter.

The two elements we like measuring best are: participation and achievement.  Taking part is measured in a number of ways: full-time, part-time, by qualification or programme level. In the useful background data to the DfE’s recent statistical report, literally millions of learning aims are recorded.  As for achievement, this is measured by full and part qualifications, and for non-accredited provision, the meeting of learning aims.

As ‘participation’ has rapidly declined in recent years, so has ‘achievement’; although they have not always been measured in the same way.  Only in Community Learning have the achievement figures held up.  Why is this?  Have providers become better at asking what learners want to achieve from their course?  Or have those learning activities that are harder to measure migrated to a place where they are exempt from the regulation that comes with government funding?  That is, provision wholly funded by employers, unions, charities, and individuals themselves.  As public funding has declined for non-formal learning, the number of adults participating in U3A courses has increased by 37% since 2008.

This is right and proper where those funders of learning can afford to pay.  What the high-level government statistics do not tell us is who is not participating?  There are some clues in the levels of provision and the age of participants.  An entitlement to full level 2, for example, would suggest that those participating do not already have one; and there is a correlation with demographic factors there.  But we are no clearer about how far achievement is addressing the level of need out there.

In one English city-region, for example, to fund the level of need for a full level 2 would cost £280m.  But the entire Adult Education Budget for that region is £80m per annum.  It would take three and a half years to address the problem, even if funders neglected provision at level 1 and basic skills.

No wonder local planners are looking at funding adult learning that has a direct impact on employability, health, and community involvement.  Currently qualifications are used as a proxy for the skills that are likely to ensure we are healthier, wealthier, and more likely to be involved in our community, or vote, or have higher levels of trust.

But in an age of devolved funding, canny planners are also likely to see short cuts to achieving a wide range of outcomes by encouraging participation in adult education.  Full qualifications are an expensive means of achieving this; they are the gas-guzzlers of the education system, using up precious public funding.  We should be using ‘greener’ methods of powering the learning revolution through the funding of short courses and tasters aimed at engagement, empowerment, and enabling individuals to progress.

Back in the day when government sponsored adult learning participation surveys, we had a much stronger sense of who was not participating as well as those lucky enough or motivated enough to get on a course.  We also had a sense of why people learned, what they wanted to learn, and how much they would pay for it.

Such reports also told policy-makers that participation was an achievement in itself; once adults were engaged in learning, however briefly, they were more likely to go on and do more.  They were much clearer about the role of government in stimulating and encouraging a market for learning.

In many ways participation and achievement could be regarded as the same thing.  For some of us, participation is an achievement in itself and should be supported through public funding.  So perhaps now is the time to look beyond the current datasets and analyse participation in UK adult education and its impact.