Best in class: Three steps to build more effective adult education services
By Bex Spencer, Michael Crowder and Liam Thornton
The evidence is clear: adult education plays a significant role in reskilling individuals, supporting people into employment and improving health and wellbeing.
Despite this, the UK skills base lags behind similar countries, with individuals who leave education at 16 particularly underrepresented in accessing lifelong learning. Courses are delivered by a patchwork of public and private providers while the funding system is complex and confusing. So what can be done to improve outcomes?
From 2021 to 2022, Social Finance worked with two local authorities in London to review their adult education services. We analysed their business models, reviewed their data, and engaged with over 100 residents and stakeholders to understand how the services could increase their impact. Following this work, we want to share three recommendations to improve the quality of skills delivery:
1. Define outcomes to build a curriculum that serves current and future learners
Users of adult education services come from a variety of backgrounds and bring with them a unique set of aspirations. These range from wanting support to access employment, to improving their health and wellbeing, to building creativity and community networks.
My life is painting and drawing. I’m very passionate. Art is my oxygen. – Learner
Funding for skills providers is often tied to activity (enrolment, number of courses provided) rather than impact (outcomes achieved). Without clear outcomes statements, there is a risk that the course offer does not support diverse learner wants and needs. It reduces scope for services to capture the wide impact their courses have, losing opportunities to access new funding streams.
Adult education services should set out a clear theory of change tied to user outcomes. We supported one service to develop an outcomes framework, which starts with key outcomes as identified by local stakeholders and then works backwards, plotting courses and activities against each one. This helped to identify priorities, gaps, and inform decisions on what courses to deliver.
2. Use data to ensure your service is reaching those who need it
Collection and analysis of outcomes data can help a service understand the cost-effectiveness of its provision (in terms of spend per outcome), highlight service strengths and weaknesses, identify underserved groups, and more powerfully articulate the impact they are having.
I joined this course to better myself, to help me find a job, and to progress. – Learner
In one area, more comprehensive data analysis showed that learners from certain ethnic minority backgrounds and learners on low incomes were underrepresented. In another area, a significant proportion of participants were travelling from outside the borough to access learning, suggesting that courses were not serving local residents as intended.
Identifying these challenges allowed services to take tailored steps to improve provision. Some of the many ideas that we developed with community groups, learners and council staff involved more targeted marketing, building stronger community partnerships, allowing learners to pay for courses online, and adjusting the delivery locations to make learning more accessible.
3. Build strong partnerships to create a high quality local learning pathway
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to skills delivery; over the course of our project we spoke with over 10 councils who each ran their service in a slightly different way. However, fostering greater collaboration between local providers emerged as a key step to promote a more integrated adult education environment. In both our recent projects, mapping alternative local lifelong learning provision revealed a vibrant but disconnected local landscape of adult education providers. Clearly laying this out helped services better visualise their role, reduce course duplication, and highlight gaps.
The courses were really important to build my confidence in speaking English…I can now speak to my neighbours, and go to a GP. – Learner
In one area, the council realised there was a significant number of ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) providers locally. They facilitated a process to bring providers together, map what was on offer, allow cross referring and make sure each learner accessed the most suitable provision. Community commissioning pots are another option being piloted to open pathways to underrepresented learners. Local voluntary and community groups receive a grant for marketing and outreach, while the council provides teachers and delivers courses to new learner groups. Other councils are working together to deliver new Information, Advice and Guidance (IAG) services to help learners better navigate a complex skills and employment landscape and access the right support.
What next for skills delivery?
Through this project, we heard from learners first-hand how high-quality skills provision can enrich and improve lives. These recommendations show some of the steps that individual providers can take to improve their delivery. But this needs to be matched by increased investment, and a focus on outcomes in skills delivery at a national level. We welcome the recent government commitment to reform skills funding and prioritise outcomes. We hope this learning will inform that review, so that more people can benefit from high quality, life-long learning.
To find out more about our work on skills and employment, contact email@example.com
Sign up for the Social Finance newsletters