Read the thoughts of Jessica Russell on research and the FETL Fellowship experience

My experience in Further Education, both as a learner and employee, has been diverse. From studying on an intensive A’ level course in Ipswich in my late teens, to creative writing at the City Lit in my 20s, to British Sign Language in Waltham Forest in my 30s, to working in community outreach and teaching in Southend-on-Sea in my 40s, there has always been a course available at a local college, or adult learning provider. Where I found compulsory education prescriptive and constrictive, further education was flexible, supporting me in a range of achievements, despite changing aspirations and a range of challenging life circumstances.

In my professional outreach role at a community college, I have seen thousands of adults benefit from FE, just as I have.  A key difference is that many of them were coaxed into learning, being less confident to enrol on a college course without a little, or lot, of persuasion and support.  From the grandmother who wanted to be able to read stories to her grandchildren, to the young man with Asperger’s who wanted to be able to live a more independent life by getting a job (and did), my last decade in the sector has been sustained by seeing people gradually learning their way towards their life goals in adulthood.  Crucially, however, for as many adults I have seen engage with learning, there are far more who have not. Seeing those who ultimately did not engage, has led me to wonder what are the factors within people and the FE system that push or pull some people into adult education, but not others.

It was this curiosity that led me to develop my fellowship proposal to FETL last year: what would FE look like if non-learners had a voice?  The non-learner voice I was particularly interested in hearing was that of disadvantaged groups targeted by the funding stream formerly known as Community Learning, and within that the contingent categorised as ‘Learning Avoidant’ in the 2010 National Adult Learner survey.  I submitted my proposal with this broad question, and a good deal of inexperience; thankfully FETL, by its own admission, is a ‘bold’ organisation who felt able to award me the valuable opportunity of a fellowship to explore the question more deeply, using a systems thinking approach.

The fellowship process put me on a learning curve that has been terrifyingly steep at times – but I’ve used that as an exercise in empathy when considering the feelings my survey questions might evoke in some non-learners.  Overall, working for FETL has been immensely rewarding both personally and professionally; they provided a thorough induction, a robust framework of academic boundaries and ongoing individualised support, within which I have been given the freedom and impetus to think deeply, think again, and do the work.

Having reached the end stage of completing the final report, discussion of the findings has led to more questions that, I hope, have both a potential practical application locally and wider system implications.  The good news from the surveys is that leaders have high aspirations for their communities and that non-learners think that continued learning for adults is very important.  The less good news is that the majority of non-learners say they are unlikely to take part in learning during the next year.  The difference between the two statements is the respondents’ confidence to attend learning.  Could strategies that explicitly address this lack of confidence be a potential leverage point around participation in learning for the sector to take forward?

After a decade of community outreach work in the FE sector, against a backdrop of cuts, under a perceived cloak of invisibility in the public mind, it would be easy to become dispirited or jaded about the huge potential the sector holds for delivering social mobility.  Instead, with the intellectual enrichment and rigour of the FETL Fellowship experience, I now hold new ideas and a renewed sense of purpose for creative engagement work.  My hope is the wider report findings will inspire others in the sector to think differently and try new approaches, particularly in employing flexible funding for stimulating learning that engages with the most disadvantaged adults in society.

Jessica Russell, October 2016