Adult learners face barriers to entering learning - that much is well known. What is striking in focus group discussions is how the barriers are not simply overcome once on the way into a class, but are faced again and again. Barriers have to be constantly overcome - a crèche may be offered but what about childcare for studying time, or visiting a library to prepare a project? A course may be free but what about bus fares to get there?
Focus group participants spoke about many barriers that get in the way of their learning, for themselves and for others they know:
Childcare - for parents (especially single parents) with young children, learning can only be accessed if childcare is provided. And even if there is a créche during class time, these people have difficulty in getting studying done outside of class time because of the demands of family life. It can be 9 pm before they can open their books to study, once the children are in bed and the chores done.
Costs - not only for the course itself, but also for transport, childcare, and (for the vocational courses that offer intensive preparation for work) the need to generate income to maintain the family. One learner said that there was support for the unemployed and for single mothers, but not for her, a married woman with children, who could nevertheless not afford course fees.
Time - for people who are working it is finding a class that they can fit in with work schedules, for mothers it is finding a class that can be accommodated with children's needs, for some it is not wanting to take a bus somewhere at night. Others felt that the college courses they knew about were too big a commitment of time -- they would have to go full time, or several days a week, or commit themselves for a whole year. What they wanted instead was something short, flexible and accessible that could lead to something else.
Fear: Perhaps the biggest barrier to learning is fear.
Fear of the unknown is common to other adult learners too - the focus group participants in other programmes talked about wondering if they would be able to do the work, anxiety about having to write or speak in front of a group. Some of the Return to Learn participants talked about how hard their first day was - confronted with a lot of paperwork, a book, having to answer the tutor's questions.
Most of the learners didn't know the people in their class beforehand, and this made them shy. One class in a focus group had several people who had known each other before and they talked about how this had made it easier for them.
Attitudes: Accessing learning is about attitudes as well as information.
Behind some of the barriers lie cultural attitudes towards learning that are
slow to change. People who didn't do well in school are regarded as 'thick'.
People think once you're through with school why go back? Studying is seen as
too difficult, and not for people like me. These attitudes do change and can
change, but only slowly.
(Scottish Executive: http://www.scotland.gov.uk/library3/lifelong/alltl-04.asp)
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