Thinking about impact

11 September 2015

There were times in adult education when the only impact which really counted, was the number of enrolments. In the heady days of 1970s-80s, each September, adults would queue around the block to ensure that they secured a place on their chosen course or activity of study. The challenges for providers, whether they were an FE college offering evening classes or an adult education centre, was to ensure that the numbers were higher than the previous year and to find tutors to match the increased demand. Questions were rarely asked about whether joining a ‘class’ or weekend workshops was a good thing; that was known. Indeed, it was common conversation to discuss what you might ‘join’ each autumn whether for furthering skills for work, personal development, interest or sheer pleasure. Accountability was through local government with whom funding, fees and remissions were negotiated and priorities agreed. It is estimated that there were well over 2 million adults enrolled in evening classes in 1980. In spite of larger populations, this figure dropped to 738,000 in 2010 [1]

We now live in an age of increased centralisation of funding; diminishing local resources; ever-demanding data collection and diminishing participation in publicly-supported learning. However, we also live in a time of adult unemployment; where skills and employability do not always match employers’ demands; of increasing mental ill-health, obesity and drug and alcohol abuse; of greater longevity; of increased ethnic diversity and, arguably, increased inequity. The returns, rewards, outcomes and benefits of learning as an adult remain the same as they did in 1950s and 1980s; learning throughout life is deeply about being human: personal fulfillment, employment, making sense of the world and social and community development.  

The Impact Forums were set up as part of the EAAL work in the UK for 2015. Developing the Forums created an impact. Bringing together policy-makers with employers; local government officers; learning providers; health providers; third sector organisations; trade unions and community groups, created a platform for informing and learning.  Sharing research across the UK – and Europe – facilitated insights within and between the different administrations but also highlighted our common issues for development. The forums also fostered resolve to future joint advocacy and future partnership working.

Four forums, in the four UK administrations; four themes of exclusion, basic skills, employability and digital inclusion; four meetings learning from over 50 presentations, evidenced the impact of learning. We learned about changes in individual lives in Wales where migrant communities were supported and trained to work in the health and social care sector. We heard individual testimonies of unfulfilled dreams at school, which transformed into successful careers through learning later. The forums discussed and debated, with the help of employers’ representatives and NIACE research, how opening up multiple progression routes for unemployed young people can lead to sustained employment. We shared insight and research into supporting some of the most vulnerable families where both adults’ and children’s lives were changed through support with essential skills and healthier life-styles.  

Voluntary organisations in Northern Ireland revealed the impact of learning on the lives of people coping with alcohol and drug addiction as well as those who were homeless or living with mental ill-health.  In Scotland we learned how the training of digital champions, from the voluntary sector, was supporting a wide range of small employers, benefiting not only the champions but the workplaces too. At the heart of all the presentations, case studies and data showed evidence of lives valued and enhanced; work found or supported; improved health and well-being and families enriched and educated. Little mention was made of qualifications gained or awards given.

The forums revealed diversity of approaches to gathering impact information and in England a workshop critiqued methods and tools, which others might share and replicate. The importance arose from the purposes to which that rich impact data was put: reviewing the quality of learners’ experiences; changing teaching and learning methods; adapting curricula; sharing what works more widely and advocating for policies and resources to do more.  

Tim Harford challenged us, in his keynote speech at the EAAL Conference, to continue to build the research-base, to keep asking questions, especially through Randomised Controlled Trials (RCTs) and respond, as adult educators, to that evidence generated. He suggested that policy-makers would then look at the interesting things happening and would want to be part of it. We should seize our knowledge and asset-base and be challenging, creative and compelling.

One of the values of the Impact Forums has been to evidence impact and then begin to ask questions, ‘So what?’ Impact is important to those who experience learning; those who organise it; and to those who fund it. Our work to date has demonstrated that we can and do offer rich evidence. However, do we have ways of building that evidence-base in a collective way? Do we harness the evidence to change practice and then generate further evidence in incremental ways? Do we present that evidence in the ‘right’ places?   

So the next important question is how we not only continue to build but also respond to impact evidence. We must grow our Impact Forums into platforms for action.

Jan Eldred is a Research Associate at NIACE


[1] Education: Historical Statistics.  Note: SN/SG/4252, London, House of Commons