Why can't they last the course?

Ian Shelton loved his adult-education cookery course, but then it all went wrong - teachers changed, students dropped out, and the lectures were halted. His experience isn't unusual, says Caitlin Davies

The Rev Ian Shelton had a mission. His wife, Di, was returning to full-time work and he decided it was time he picked up a new skill. "I thought I should be a modern man and develop an interest in cooking," says the 52-year-old Anglican clergyman. So he signed up for an adult education course in Grimsby.

The Rev Ian Shelton had a mission. His wife, Di, was returning to full-time work and he decided it was time he picked up a new skill. "I thought I should be a modern man and develop an interest in cooking," says the 52-year-old Anglican clergyman. So he signed up for an adult education course in Grimsby.

Shelton, who describes himself as a grey learner, can afford only limited study time. So when he read a leaflet in his local library offering a cookery course on his one free evening - a Tuesday - he was overjoyed. At once he signed up for the course at the Grimsby Institute of Further and Higher Education, which offers the biggest range of courses locally. "The class was inspirational," Shelton says. "I found a sense of confidence and sheer enjoyment. I told my tutor with great excitement that I had cooked a meal for the bishop and that he had been most impressed."

Then things started to go wrong. According to Shelton, the cookery tutor was promoted and left. A second tutor started, replaced by a third in the final term. As the original 26 students dropped to four, and with only weeks to go to the end of the course, the class was terminated. Grimsby Institute has failed to comment on Shelton's version of events.

What started as an interest in a practical subject had become a much-loved hobby, and Shelton was dismayed. His experience is not an isolated one; adults in the UK want to learn and as autumn arrives their imaginations are fired by advertisements in libraries, on public transport and in the press. For many, this is the chance to learn a new language or skill. Yet, despite what marketing brochures might promise, finding a course isn't always easy and a high drop-out rate means you could find yourself suddenly without a class to go to.

"It does happen: a lot of providers will close classes if the number of learners falls," says Annie Merton, the senior development officer at the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE). "People don't understand - and why should they? - that the fee they pay doesn't cover the costs." Most good providers, she says, will offer another time, or merge existing classes. Others give a commitment that if class numbers fall the course will continue, but this is rare and applies only to certain subjects.

Kent County Council is the largest adult-education service in Britain, and one of the most successful. A spokesperson explains that Kent sets out a clear minimum in terms of class numbers, usually between eight and 12. If the numbers drop below this, then they may put off the course starting-date, merge classes, and take a close look at the quality of the teaching. But to make classes successful, and financially viable, even in Kent cancellation is always a possibility.

There are also problems with tutor retention. The local-education workforce tends to be very part-time, says Merton, which may explain a high turnover rate. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some tutors feel the requirements for schemes of work and record-keeping just keep growing until the job becomes too much.

But why are the learners leaving? The most obvious answer is that adult education is voluntary - and adults have a lot of other concerns - jobs, children, elderly parents, health problems. According to Fiona Aldridge, a NIACE researcher, the crucial thing for adult learners is being able to find a course that fits around the family and work commitments of people already in full-time employment.

Some drop out because the course is just not up to scratch, but this is unusual, according to the Learning and Skills Council. Its most recent learner satisfaction survey found that 90 per cent of the 25,000 people interviewed described the learning experience as satisfactory.

Although Shelton was saddened by his initial experience with adult education, he wasn't put off. While on holiday in the Canaries, he went to mass and found that he couldn't understand the sermon. When he took his library books back at the end of the holiday, he again read an advert for evening classes. "And - lo and behold! - there was a Tuesday evening Spanish class for beginners", offered by the North East Lincolnshire Adult Community Learning Service. The service's website promises flexible courses, and an array of 250 exciting programmes to choose from.

Once again, Shelton was inspired. The tutor was passionate and Shelton found himself learning about a whole new culture. But, one by one, the original 18 students dropped to just eight. Despite this, the students finished the course and Shelton signed up for a level one Spanish class. He enrolled in July, paid his £85 ("a lot for a priest") and couldn't wait to get started. But the course files were left unmoderated because of staff illness, and a week before the new class was due to start, Shelton says, it was cancelled.

North East Lincolnshire's lifelong learning co-ordinator, Jenny Davis, explains that the enrolment figures for the level one class "meant it just wasn't viable. No one wants to annoy their learners. They are very precious to us. We offered two alternatives, and the student in question couldn't do either. He was a casualty in this."

However, the number of adult learners in the area is growing fast, according to Angie Butler, the head of service at North East Lincolnshire. The proportion of 16 to 69-year-olds learning in the area is 81 per cent, according to an Office of Statistics labour force survey, compared with the national average of 77 per cent. While people do "drop in and out", overall the numbers are up and that applies to all age ranges. The deferred moderation in Shelton's Spanish course was a "one off", and rarely if ever occurs, Butler says.

Shelton says that his complaints have been addressed by Butler, he has been promised a full refund, and he's keen not to "crucify" his local education provider. But he also feels, after two poor experiences with adult education, that the moral question has yet to be answered. "What's the future if people can't honour commitments? If I say to a family, 'I'll do your child's christening,' and then two weeks before say, 'Sorry, there's been a lot of funerals, I can't do it,' what would they think?"

Some observers fear that the Government's drive for skills to improve productivity means that provision is being squeezed for learners such as Shelton. He's not interested in getting a certificate, and he's not looking for a job. Rather, he wants to learn for learning's sake.

Not surprisingly, he's very disappointed. "I want to learn," he says. "And so do others. My wife now has to put up with me on Tuesday evenings." And does the Reverend still cook? "From time to time," he chuckles.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Recruitment Genius: Graduate / Trainee Sales Executive

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Graduate/Trainee Sales Executive is re...

Ashdown Group: Graduate Graphic Designer - Peterborough - £18,000

£22000 - £23000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Graduate Graphic Designer...

Ashdown Group: Graduate Developer - Cambridgeshire - £23,000

£22000 - £23000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Graduate Front-End Develo...

Ashdown Group: Graduate Application Support Analyst

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003