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.

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