Select Committee on Education and Employment Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum from Samantha McCormick (HE 152)

  I recently attended the meeting held in Manchester by the Committee, examining the needs of students from non-traditional backgrounds. The Committee asked me to forward research findings that I discussed at this meeting.

  In December 1999 I conducted a piece of research examining the needs of women returning to education in North Manchester. A community profile that I had conducted earlier in that year in the same area of North Manchester had revealed high levels of social deprivation and low levels of educational achievement. Both pieces of research were conducted in connection with my studies at Manchester Metropolitan University, local educational establishments and agencies.

  The Research considered how effectively the needs and welfare of women over 20 are addressed and met in the context of formal education and the support needed to carry on to higher education. It provides an analysis of how informal childcare and formal local networks and resources may contribute to the identified needs of women over 20 in formal education, in ways that encourage empowerment and participation by the service user.

  Needs for women returning to education everywhere have similarities but the social economic position, higher percentage of lone parents, lack of transport facilities, high incidence of ill health, debt and unemployment which were found in the profile means that women in this area have specific needs.

  I appreciate the limited timeframe for the Committee, so have included only the major findings and recommendations of relevance. I have also changed the presentation of the data so the style is more conversational and less specific to North Manchester. The majority of my sample (300 respondents) were women, who had not gained recognised qualifications at school, had childcare responsibilities and lived in or below the poverty line.


Findings and recommendations

1.  Work deadlines

  Respondents performed well academically, even when compared to those from a "traditional" academic background. However producing the work seemed to take a long time and often found deadlines difficult to meet because of family/work responsibilities. More support is needed for students who have genuine difficulties meeting deadlines.

2.  Environment

  Respondents felt supported and valued when attending courses at the local FE College, but did not continue to do so when they moved on to a Higher Educational establishment. Often this was because they are large institutions with many other students on campus. If students were able to spend time at the Universities before they attend, more time would be given for this adjustment.

  2.1  Mature students felt that the recreational activities organised by the Universities and Student Union only catered for the needs of younger students with no major responsibilities, so social aspects of university life were not available to them.

3.  Childcare

  Reliability, affordability, safety and locality are the major concerns of the respondents. When childcare is on offer connected to educational establishments it is only available to children under school age. Childcare places are very limited and a charge is still made. Although these places are subsidised my respondents were still unable to afford the fees.

  3.1  There is no help for those with children at school. After-school care and childcare during reading weeks and holidays would enable carers to study, and play-schemes run by educational establishments, free of charge and based on campus, would allow those with responsibilities to study during the holidays. If all lecture times and holidays allow for childcare responsibility, those with school age children are able to study during school times and the need for after school care is then reduced.

4.  Benefits system

  Over 75 per cent of respondents have experienced problems with the benefits system and 60 per cent felt that this had been so problematic that it had put their home, family or place on the course at significance risk.

  4.1  Those who did not have children felt that the benefits system was only interested in getting them off benefits and did not recognise that they were working towards a better future.

  4.2  The income of a student is not constant. Loans and grants are given in three instalments of differing amounts. The benefits service seems unable to make accurate and quick decisions on the entitlement of lone parents who study to means tested benefits. Training in this area is desperately needed.

  4.3  Students have to keep applying for the same benefits again and again at different times of the year because their income has changed. It is difficult to be certain as to what amount you will be awarded; consequently budgeting is impossible. Many students had accepted the fact that they were going to struggle financially but this system means they lack any security. It would be easier to make a family budget if grants and loans were paid monthly and all year to those who were unable to work.

5.  Supportive staff

  Academically and socially, staff to receive training on the needs of students returning from a non-traditional background.

6.  A safe environment to study

  Regardless of disability, race, gender, and sexuality.

7.  Independent and active Student Union

  An active Student Union can advocate, empower and represent students and their needs on a local and national level. It is important to have an independent body representing students at the college. Specific roles such as women's officer, lesbian, gay and bisexual officer and welfare rights officer have essential supportive roles to students in the college.

8.  Supportive educational networks

  Examine how students' educational careers from one institution to another can be supported and to examine the possibility of providing some types of Higher Education supported locally. The respondents did not want to move away from their local area and established family networks to study.

  8.1  Locally provided Higher Education would allow local people to stay in the area while studying in HE and encourage people into the area to study. If local people do not have to move or commute into a different area to fulfil their education potential, then they are more likely to carry on feeling a "connection" with the area and stay once qualified. In areas of high social deprivation this is essential.

9.  Loans

  The perception of student loans as lifelong debt had discouraged many of my respondents who had done well in Further Education Colleges from applying to Higher Education. They were worried that if they were unable to complete the course or gain employment, they would still be in debt. When it was explained to the respondents that they would only have to begin payment when they could afford it, they still perceived loans as a huge barrier in accessing HE. This is because in areas of poverty, debt is perceived differently, always to be avoided; a graduate tax system would remove this barrier.

Samantha McCormick

February 2001

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