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Researching the impact of enrichment in further education

01 February 2022

The FE curriculum has been criticised for being excessively narrow and instrumental and funding constraints have limited colleges’ ability to provide more than the minimum required by the qualifications students are enrolled on. At the same time, Ofsted’s Education Inspection Framework has re-focussed on the curriculum, seeing it as broader than the qualification content with more emphasis on personal development and supporting students to ‘develop and discover their interests and talents’. This can be seen as a ‘soft driver’ for colleges to revisit the purpose of their enrichment offer.

At AoC, we want to better understand the impact of enrichment in further education (FE) in order to support our case for it to be taken more seriously and better funded. Following a previous blog introducing this work, this is an update on the ongoing NCFE-funded research being led by Professor Liz Atkins, Bill Esmond and Balwant Kaur at the University of Derby. The project is a partnership between NCFE, Association of Colleges (AoC) and University of Derby.

The research aims to:

  • Generate more definition and clarity on enrichment.
  • Identify the skills acquired and understand differences in provision.
  • Identify examples of effective college enrichment programmes.
  • Provide evidence of the positive impact of enrichment for a diverse range of students.
  • Determine the extent to which enrichment activity might have economic value.

The research is in three phases:

  1. A review of the literature on enrichment in FE (2020).
  2. A survey of colleges followed by interviews with respondents and the development of case studies (2021/2).
  3. Interviews with staff and students at selected colleges and subsequent tracking and post-transition follow-up conversations with students (2022/3)

There is little research on enrichment in FE. In 1986, the Further Education Unit (FEU) reported on extra-curricular activities as part of an evaluation of the Certificate in Pre-Vocational Education (CPVE) pilot. A decade later, The Further Education Funding Council (FEFC) described enrichment as: ‘sport, music, drama, cultural and practical activities, work experience and work shadowing, residential visits and study tours, foreign exchanges, health education, personal and social education, religious education, languages, information technology, group projects, outdoor pursuits, clubs and societies, and leisure interests’.

More recent work has shown that there is no common definition of enrichment and many different interpretations. Drawing on the literature, enrichment can be described as: extra-curricular activities of interest to students, which promote the acquisition of wider skills such as communication and self-confidence and which involve learning that is not linked directly to the formal curriculum. Enrichment is likely to involve activities which are focussed on personal development, community engagement or work-related settings.

The survey phase reached out to all AoC member colleges and the team received 84 responses reflecting a range of college types across all the English regions and representing a diversity of socio-economic contexts. These were used to structure a typology for the findings:

  • Aims and conceptualisations of enrichment
  • Relationship to wider college strategies
  • Structured plans versus responsive provision
  • Funding, compliance and student entitlement
  • Social life in college and beyond
  • Normative socialisation

Of the 84 colleges which responded, 20 agreed to be contacted for an in-depth qualitative interview and sixteen of these interviews have now taken place.

The emerging findings are that FE students benefit from enrichment because it:

  • Helps to address inequalities by providing access to activities and opportunities taken for granted by more advantaged peers.
  • Supports the development of students as contributing members of society.
  • Facilitates progression to employment and adulthood more broadly.
  • Helps to develop work-related skills such as team-working and communication.

Among the issues raised were: the impact of inequalities, funding and culture, the Covid-19 pandemic, the role of student unions and geographical constraints to accessing opportunities.

Interviewees were very conscious of deepening social inequalities and emphasised the importance of enrichment for the most disadvantaged students in helping to ameliorate some of those inequalities. FE students tend to experience greater social and educational exclusion, mediated by class, gender, and ethnicity and lack of access to valued experiences.

Lack of funding was seen as a major barrier to provision. The take-up of activities is higher where enrichment is embedded in a college’s culture and receives central funding. In some cases it is mandated via the student contract with the college.

The COVID pandemic has led to the cancellation of many activities and a shift to online provision. This has been particularly detrimental for the most disadvantaged students, who may not have access to digital devices or private workspaces.

Student Unions are heavily involved in the provision of enrichment in many colleges, and this provides opportunities for greater student agency and autonomy. However, in some areas, long travel-to-learn times can limit the opportunities for students to participate in activities and visits.

The colleges in the study are all very committed to enhancing their students’ experience, and the research has shown the wide range of activities that colleges view as enriching. It’s also evident that the transformative potential of enrichment hasn’t been fully realised, mainly because of resource limitations. Increased resource could clearly support a wider enrichment offer and it is clear that enrichment activity is one good way of mitigating the barriers facing many FE students.

The next steps are to do further qualitative research and to develop some case studies. This will include interviewing students and teachers to help better understand their perception of the benefits of enrichment.

Eddie Playfair is a Senior Policy Manager at AoC