Closing the attainment gap in further education

By Jaspal Dhaliwal on

Adult Community Learning (ACL) and Further Education (FE) are invaluable layers in the UK education system, by providing school leavers and adults returning to education, another opportunity to gain qualifications. A large proportion of school leavers who attend FE are those who have not been successful at school during key stage 4, these learners at college largely go on to undertake vocational qualifications. It is worth mentioning the ‘type’ of student that enter FE. After key stage 4 approximately 55% of students leave school and go on to A level qualifications, leaving the remaining for 45% going to FE to take either level 1, 2 or 3 courses, which are largely vocationally based qualifications. These students are also less likely to have left school with five A* - C GCSEs and this group has a higher disadvantage factor with 25% eligible for free school meals (FSM) at level 3 and 40% at level 2. Significantly higher than the students who take A levels, with only 16% eligible for FSM. This gives us an indication of not only the academic ability, but also the social disadvantage that these students enter college with, this is relevant across all ethnic groups, FSM-eligible pupils are less likely to achieve a grade 5 or above in English and Maths GCSE than those not eligible during key stage 4 (DFE, 2018).
With this as the backdrop it is easy to see how these challenges can follow young learners into adult education.
At Westminster Adult Education Service (WAES) an achievement gap has emerged between our African learners and our White British learners – over the last three years that gap has widened. As a response we set up a group to work on initiatives to firstly reduce and then close that gap. 
As a start point, we considered all touch points of the learner journey from application, enrolment to progression. This included reviewing all communication to learners to ensure that key information was being delivered and acknowledged. We refocused our attention to support services offered at the service and streamlined priority access. 
The pandemic had a greater impact on particular groups within society and with that in mind we undertook a series of focus groups that to better understand the challenge facing our learners. We reviewed our additional learning support service to make it even more learner focused by supporting learners during evenings and weekends. 
With attendance rates improving and the year end in sight we firmly set our sights on achievement and through the predicted grades activity we were able to identify learners who were at risk and then embarked on our ambitious mentoring programme. 
We reached out to cross service managers to take up a case load of learners. Mentors were given training around a seven-point approach to understand key responsibilities. A cohort of learner were identified as being at risk of failing and as a direct result of the mentoring programme we were able to move 75% of learners towards achieving their qualification. The feedback from learners has been extremely positive.
The mentoring of these learners improved their outcomes and progression opportunities into further education and employment – a remarkable feat! The feedback from managers has been amazing and from September we will be widening the network of mentors across the service. 
Throughout the journey this group regularly met to review progress to ensure momentum continued and support and supervision was in place at all times. All of which fed into our wider Equality and Diversity Committee.
Underpinning these bold steps, has been an awareness from the leadership at WAES to actively commit and acknowledge the challenges faced with EDI. In a bid to work towards greater awareness and understanding managers have participated in the ETF Diversity in Leadership coaching programme and ETF Diversity in Leadership coaching workshop – receiving coaching and mentoring from established and effective leaders, such as Dr Maxine Room CBE, to enable and mobilise mangers to make change and draw upon a wealth of knowledge and experience from some of the original gamechangers.
At WAES we are committed to preventing achievement gaps and have a firmly set agenda that has been internally developed and has everyone connected at the service as key stakeholders.

Jaspal Dhaliwal is Head of Inclusion, Maths, English and Digital Skills at Westminster Adult Education Service