Why does residential adult education change lives?

Returning to education as an adult takes guts. This is particularly the case if you have struggled with and underachieved at school previously.
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At Northern College, we understand what a big decision it is to revisit studying later in life and that there are often barriers to overcome.

As the only adult residential college in the North, we have a distinguished history of providing life changing opportunities to hundreds of learners every year.

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This week - Colleges Week - is a time for us to celebrate our remarkable adult learning community and the further education (FE) teaching and support staff who inspireour students to achieve.

Emma Beal, Principal and Chief Executive, Northern CollegeEmma Beal, Principal and Chief Executive, Northern College
Emma Beal, Principal and Chief Executive, Northern College

We want to bang the drum for the FE sector especially the transformational impact of residential adult education, which changes lives.

Education has the power to address geographic and social inequalities as well as urgent skills gaps and shortages that are holding back the local and national economy.

It does this by raising aspirations and providing opportunities for adults to re-train for new careers and become more highly qualified by progressing, for example, to university.

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Studying not only changes students’ prospects, it creates an improved sense of wellbeing; this is something that we hear from those in our learning community time and time again.

Northern College students celebrate their achievements at an annual awards ceremony.Northern College students celebrate their achievements at an annual awards ceremony.
Northern College students celebrate their achievements at an annual awards ceremony.

Despite the many positive benefits of adult education to individuals, communities and the economy, there have been significant funding reductions to college courses for adults.

For example, there were nearly 5.5 million adults enrolled in government-funded further education qualifications in 2004/5 compared to 1.5 million by 2020/21.

According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ Annual Report on Education Spending in England 2023, this represents a 72% decline.

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This week, college leaders are highlighting their top priorities for an incoming government, many of which are encapsulated in the Association of Colleges’ Opportunity England report.

As the report highlights, the poorest adults with the lowest qualification levels are least likely to access adult training despite being the group that benefits the most.

Meanwhile, those who are unemployed struggle to access the education and skills training to get them into good jobs.

This means millions of people are missing out on vital opportunities at a time when employers are crying out for more skilled staff.

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We serve a wide geographic community, attracting learners from South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire and further afield.

A high proportion of our students are from disadvantaged backgrounds; they may be unemployed and/or have a learning difficulty, disability or health problem.

They often have low self confidence and expectations of themselves because they have struggled, for a wide range of reasons, with studying in the past.

At Northern College, we give equal value to the development of personal wellbeing as well as knowledge and skills.

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Learners need to develop the confidence not only to succeed at their education but to take advantage of the future opportunities that studying provides.

In our experience, studying residentially and staying on campus provides an immersive and calm learning experience with fewer distractions. Students find that this improves their concentration, aspirations, motivation, resilience and mindset.

It also helps that our campus is a striking Grade 1 listed building, Wentworth Castle, near Barnsley, South Yorkshire, and set within 60 acres of National Trust gardens.

The short courses that we offer provide a reassuring stepping-stone for students to progress to the next level academic and vocational qualifications. Many of our students are eligible to study for free on some of our courses.

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At Northern College, we support the idea of a new statutory right to lifelong learning that includes a universal entitlement to a first full level 3 qualification on a wider range of courses which are in line with local skills needs.

We would also like to see an incoming government commit to greater investment in adult education, addressing real term cuts over the last decade, as well as maintaining appropriate ongoing funding for adult residential study.

Lifelong learning has the potential to enrich so many more people’s lives and enhance their prospects; it deserves to be at the heart of our local communities and economies.