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Is the journey I took now a lost path through education? - Caroline Dunstan

21 September 2023

By Caroline Dunstan, lead learning and development practitioner at Riverside College and a Research Further Scholar

As Research Further scholar, I am both excited and daunted by the opportunity to carry out research within FE and study for my EdD, as well as being part of an inspiring group of people. I am also aware how lucky I am to have my EdD funded, and this has led me to think about my journey through education and how each stage of my route would not be open to students today.

Like many, I didn’t do well in my O Levels (the title of which shows how long ago I took them!). I had my daughter when I was young and then, again like many people, wanted to return to education. I attended the Harrison Centre (part of Blackburn College) one afternoon a week to study for an English A Level and Sociology O Level. This was free and there was a creche for my daughter. For today’s adult students returning to education, there is little availability to study for A Levels or GCSEs (apart from GCSEs in English and maths) and certainly few creches attached to educational establishments. Their option now would be an Access course.

I have taught Access courses, and am passionate about their potential to change lives, but to study in person means attending college for three days a week at a cost of around £3,300 (refunded if you go to university). The very people who are likely to apply for Access courses are those who often need to work to support their families and struggle to give up three days or “borrow” £3,300. Online Access courses are an option, but students miss out on the sense of community and the tutor support that prepares them for university.

I was encouraged by a wonderful tutor to apply to university with only one A Level, and after an interview at Manchester Polytechnic was offered a place on a two year Diploma in Higher Education, which led to another one year to achieve a degree in English. This was free with a grant towards living expenses (I did work throughout my degree as well). Applying as a mature student now with one A Level, I would be likely to be offered a place on a foundation degree, increasing my time at university to four years, and adding an extra £9,000 to my student loan, coming out with a possible student loan debt of around £36,000.

I studied for an MA in Children’s Literature in my 40’s and was offered funding for the first year through an EU scheme to encourage women into post-graduate study - I imagine Brexit will have reduced or removed the opportunity for this type of funding. Finally, I now have my funding for my EdD.

The reduction in funding for adult education over the past decade (spending on adult classroom-based education in 2024-25 will be 40 per cent below 2009-10 levels, according to the IFS) along with the seeming shift from valuing education to valuing skills means adult returners are limited in their choice of subjects and evening classes are sadly depleted. It seems that we are saddling our young people and adults who want a second chance at education with debt, and restricting their learning to a narrow focus of subjects that meet the skills agenda. What happened to the opportunity to study a subject purely out of interest or passion? There is so much more to education than filling skills gaps like the love of a subject, sharing ideas and developing connections with others, critical thinking, measured debate, identifying fact from fiction and political awareness.

In a survey carried out by the Learning and Work Institute, 47 per cent of adults said their personal wellbeing and health had benefited from taking part in education (2022). The Citizens Curriculum Community Project in Rochdale has not only helped local people get jobs, but it is reported that for every £1 spent, £4.50 is saved in terms of reduced police callouts, preventing children going into care, and reduced calls on the ambulance and doctors’ services (The Guardian, 2023). Education can support wellbeing and reduce loneliness.

Government policies, such as those around widening participation, have their funding, goals and targets - but do they address or reach those students that would truly benefit from them? Offering free or subsidised evening classes in subjects that bring local people together and ignite their passions could not only lead onto further study for some (many Access to HE students go on to become nurses, social workers and teachers), but also support local communities within deprived areas, maybe helping to address some of the inequalities that currently exist within the education system.

When I set out to write this blog, the advice I got was to write about something that keeps me awake at night. I feel lucky to have had opportunities to learn throughout my life, but the current lack of opportunity for those who would benefit from studying with others within a safe space, and for those who want a second chance at education frankly should be keeping us all awake.

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.


Learning and Work Institute (2022) Adult Participation in Work Survey Available at: Accessed: 23 August 2023.

The Guardian (2023)

IFS (2023) Adult Education and Skills Available at: Accessed 24.08.23