Ralf St.Clair and Martin Cloonan, University of Glasgow, Beth Crossan, Jim Gallacher, Nuala Toman and Joanne Brodie, Glasgow Caledonian University
ISBN 0 7559 2825 3 (Web only publication)
This document is also available in pdf format (128k)
The aim of this Scottish Executive commissioned study, conducted between January and July 2005 by the University of Glasgow and Glasgow Caledonian University, was to identify good practice within Further Education ( FE) colleges in terms of recruiting and retaining lone parent students. Lone parents are a priority group identified by the Scottish Executive as being under-represented in further and higher education. Over the last few years, £24 million has been dedicated to supporting lone parents in education. The findings point to a number of elements of good practice likely to enhance the participation of lone parents if adopted across the FE sector.
- The complexity of financial support systems can be confusing to potential and current students, and it is important for FE colleges to find ways of simplifying the information given to students while still supplying sufficient and appropriate information for making informed choices.
- Reliable and affordable childcare is a central issue for lone parents, and needs to be provided in a variety of forms - one approach, such as a central college nursery, does not suit all students.
- Programme structures should make it easier for lone parents to juggle the competing demands upon their time, for example, by aligning class times with childcare opening times and by being flexible about assessment deadlines.
- Lone parents, as with other under-represented groups, need to be engaged effectively and early in their educational progress. Student services can help by providing easy and approachable ways for students to learn about the support available.
- Links between the FE college and community partners can help to make the college less daunting, can encourage recruitment, and can help with the development of innovative programmes designed to meet community needs.
- Peer support, both from other lone parents and students more widely, can help lone parents to stay engaged with education. This should be built into teaching and learning structures without explicitly targeting lone parents and risking stigmatisation.
Findings based on a survey of FE colleges and case studies of 3 colleges fall into 2 groups: good practice recommendations and policy considerations.
Good practice recommendations
A number of respondents (staff and students) in this study emphasised that it was not appropriate to single out lone parents as a specific target group, and lone parent students commented on the dangers of stigmatisation. However staff and student respondents did bring out the distinctive needs of lone parent students, and the importance of colleges being responsive to these needs. The key issues can be summarised in 6 areas of recommendations for good practice.
1. Managing complexity of financial support systems
- Colleges have to balance the need to reduce the complexity of the information about financial support systems with the need to ensure that students have sufficient and appropriate information to enable them to make informed choices.
- Managing the complexity of the funding system requires staff with a high level of training and expertise, and who have a dedicated role in providing information and advice of this kind.
- Complexities associated with the benefits system create problems for many students. While college staff cannot change the rules of the benefits system, specialist financial advisers can have a very important role in acting as intermediaries , working with local benefits personnel to ensure students receive all the support they are entitled to. In large cities, with several colleges, links with benefits system personnel could be organised on a city wide basis.
- The need to reduce the complexity for students of recording information was recognised, and one college reported a system of ensuring that all information is recorded on one form. This has been welcomed by students.
- A key area of complexity is the transition from non-advanced to advanced study.
2. Providing reliable and affordable childcare
- Appropriate childcare is a key support required by many lone parent students. However the needs of these students can vary, and it is useful if this support can be provided in a number of ways - one size does not fit all.
- Campus based childcare, such as college nurseries, is extremely valuable and convenient. It can be helpful to prioritise lone parent and low income families.
- Some students prefer to arrange local childcare, and it is important that this is supported. Students who attend community based and outreach provision may also require support in arranging their childcare.
- It is often useful for colleges to build networks with local childcare organisations.
- The needs of students in rural areas should also be recognised. It may be difficult to bring children in to campus based provision because of the distances involved, but there may also be a shortage of registered childminders. It is important that colleges recognise this wherever possible in their financial support for these students.
- Childcare going beyond class contact time is highly valued by students, as otherwise many have difficulty in finding the opportunities for coursework and private study.
- Advanced students may require special attention regarding childcare, as there is potentially a funding shortfall, particularly where student lone parents have more than one child.
3. Ensuring programme structures are flexible
- The problems which many lone parents experience in 'juggling' the competing demands on their time was emphasised by a number of respondents. A variety of forms of flexibility can be helpful to them in meeting these demands.
- Timing classes to start after school and to stop before the school day ends reduces the need for childcare and may help with the practicalities of time management.
- Negotiated deadlines for assessment can help lone parents to juggle time demands and deal with crises such as a sick child.
- The approachability of teaching staff and opportunities for extra support are highly prized by lone parents.
- It is appreciated if teaching staff are well informed about, and understanding of, the time pressures on lone parents.
- Providing places for private study in the college is valuable for lone parents. This can mean open computer labs and extended library opening hours.
4. Engaging students effectively
- Many lone parents are 'uncertain' learners and require appropriate support both to encourage them to begin their studies and to progress.
- In this respect they are similar to many other adult returners, and it is more valuable to have broad access routes that recognise and address the shared needs of many students rather than to have only targeted programmes.
- An example of broad provision of this kind is a 'gateway' programme provided by one college which, while not particularly targeted towards lone parents, includes support that is helpful to them. This consists of courses of relatively short duration, in which all expenses including travel, childcare, books, equipment, and fees are covered.
- However programmes which recognise the distinctive need of lone parents, and provide appropriate support structures, can have a place alongside more general access mechanisms.
- Community based provision can have a key role in reducing barriers of confidence and academic insecurity for lone parents and other adult returners.
- The need to welcome potential students and ensure that Student Services provides them with easy and speedy access to required information was noted by a number of respondents.
- The need for high quality student support going beyond times of transition to ensure that students receive appropriate assistance throughout their study period was noted.
- Approachability was emphasised by students as a critical aspect of student service quality, and building long term relationships is an important strategy to maintain good relationships.
5. Creating partnerships and community links
- The importance of developing partnerships with appropriate agencies and organisations was noted by a number of respondents. These can take a number of forms.
- The importance of strengthening links with staff responsible for administering the benefits system has been noted above, and could be an important role for dedicated money advisers in colleges.
- The value of joint projects with agencies such as Job Centre Plus was also emphasised by respondents, and this could be a valuable area for development.
- The importance of community based provision has been noted above. Partnerships with community groups and organisations who work directly with lone parents can help to encourage participation, provide additional support for students, and assist colleges to design courses and programmes that recognise community needs and priorities.
6. Encouraging peer support
- The importance of peer support to help lone parents and other students stay engaged with education was noted by a number of respondents.
- Peer support for lone parents need not come only from other lone parents, but may most effectively come from a diverse group of fellow students.
- It is helpful for colleges to encourage the development of peer support structures.
- Lecturers can encourage collaborative working, which is strongly appreciated by lone parents as a way to gain, and to give, support.
- Peer support can be systematically built into teaching and learning systems throughout the college.
Three areas of policy were identified as potentially benefiting from consideration.
1. Childcare funding
The policy that requires government funded childcare to be provided by registered childcare providers means that parents in receipt of working tax credits who are using relatives for childcare will not be able to claim the childcare element (of WTC) for any childcare payment made, although there is still some scope for flexibility through awards from college Hardship Funds. This can be an issue of particular importance for students in rural areas where there is a shortage of registered childminders. While recognising the need to regulate and monitor childcare arrangements, it may be useful to re-examine this policy and consider ways in which the needs of lone parents in these situations can be met. Options could include specific measures for family care, better information provision or efforts to increase the pool of registered childcare provision.
2. Transitions to advanced study
The transition between non-advanced and advanced study raises particular issues related to financial support which many students, and particularly lone parents, find complex and daunting. There is a need to consider the potentially negative consequences for these students of the current arrangements for financial support for students on higher education programmes. There is an opportunity to make a substantial positive improvement in the educational opportunities open to these students by finding a way to smooth this transition.
3. Monitoring lone parent participation
While there is a danger of stigmatising lone parents if programmes are specifically focused upon this group, failure to track these students makes it difficult to monitor the effectiveness of policies designed to increase their representation. Of the 21 colleges responding to this issue in the survey, only five could track lone parents in information management systems. It would be helpful if it could be recommended that all colleges establish systems to enable the tracking of lone parents. This would assist colleges to know how well they are serving this sub-group of students.
The research team were impressed by the strength of FE colleges' commitment to working with diverse groups of learners, and by the variety of effective practices that were identified. Overall, it seems the key factors for success in working with lone parents are similar to those for other under-represented groups, and adoption of these recommendations is likely to make participation in FE colleges more feasible for many individuals who are prevented by life circumstances from engaging in education.
The Research findings and Research Report are available on the Scottish Executive Social Research website. Findings will also be circulated to FE colleges in Scotland.
Data were gathered from 3 sources. A literature review concerning lone parents in Further Education colleges in Scotland was conducted. This provided the background information needed to design a survey on college policies sent to all Further Education colleges in Scotland. Two-thirds of all colleges responded (31 of 46), of which 3 colleges were selected as case studies for in-depth investigation. The colleges were selected for their diversity, and included one specialist college, one generalist urban college, and one generalist rural college. Staff and students from each were interviewed and this information was analysed using a thematic scheme derived from the primary research questions. The recommendations are derived from the results of this analysis.
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The Report, "Lone Parents in Further Education Colleges", which is summarised in this research findings is a web only document and is available on the publications page of the Scottish Executive website at http://www.scotland.gov.uk/publications/recent
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