Scotland leads the way with flexible adult education opportunities

Qualifications are vital in helping people realise their potential '“ but recognising their wider achievements in life is just as significant. That is the guiding principle behind the Adult Achievement Awards, an area where Scotland really is leading the world.

Newbattle Abbey College was the natural choice to develop and lead on the awards. As Scotland’s adult education college, it has a specific focus on providing opportunities to those who didn’t, for whatever reason, move into further or higher education when younger.

The Adult Achievement Awards plugged a gap. People were achieving worthwhile, exciting, excellent things – in the community, in their workplace, in the voluntary sector or even within their family – without formal recognition. Sometimes, that recognition can make all the difference to an individual’s confidence and sense of self-worth, which in turn can build stronger individuals, stronger families, stronger voluntary networks and stronger communities.

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The awards are extremely flexible and inclusive. There are no entry requirements and learning can be carried out by individuals or in groups, supported locally by mentors and/or tutors. It is all about celebrating learning and recognising it on the “qualifications ladder”, the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework.

Newbattle was tasked with developing an award which allowed this to happen in this flexible, inclusive way, while laying down clear outcomes. People taking part in the awards have to review what they have achieved, record it, reflect upon it and lay down a plan for the future.

The reflection is captured in a journal, which can be written (online or on paper), oral, or recorded with the support of a scribe. We were determined the programme would be open to people with a range of learning challenges.

There were ten pilot schemes across Scotland in 2015-16, operated at local level by a mixture of colleges, local authorities and voluntary organisations, involving 150 learners and 40-plus tutors, and evaluated by Education Scotland.

They offered three options for an Adult Achievement Award – one at Level 3 on the SCQF ladder, which demanded 30 hours of learning, through Level 4 (40 hours) to Level 6 (60 hours). Almost 75 per cent of learners in the first pilot scheme achieved Level 3, with three individuals achieving Level 6. This was no surprise for a new scheme, but I expect learners to be more ambitious as the awards bed down.

The prize for learners is high. For many, especially those without formal qualifications, an Adult Achievement Award on their CV will enhance their job prospects enormously.

As well as supporting employability and skills, the awards help adults with physical and mental health challenges, reinforce lifelong learning (45 per cent of the pilot scheme’s participants are over 50) and increase female participation (women made up 65 per cent of the first pilot group). The programme also recognises the achievements of refugees and prisoners (Dumfries Prison took part in our first pilot project).

This wide range of positive policy agendas has attracted the attention of the Scottish Government. Further education minister Shirley-Anne Somerville has visited the college, local MSP Colin Beattie has a keen interest as a member of the education and skills committee and we are delighted John Swinney, cabinet secretary for education & skills, agreed to speak at our annual Adult Education conference on 29 March. That event will hear feedback from those involved in the second pilot scheme (15 schemes and 250 learners) and outline the business plan to move the Adult Achievement Awards forward.

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We are very hopeful for the future because the feedback from learners has been excellent; the sense of achievement in receiving an award making recipients more aware of their own strengths, more confident about the future and more determined to continue learning.

As the project gathers pace, interest continues to grow. Isle of Man University College was involved in the second pilot and one of the charities involved, Phoenix Futures (which works with people with alcohol and drug dependency problems) is interested in extending the programme from Scotland to the rest of its work across the UK. There is no-one else doing this in Europe and as the Adult Achievement Awards go from strength to strength, Scotland should be very proud.
Marian Docherty is deputy 
principal of Newbattle Abbey College