Bite size is best

The LSC’s new ‘bite size’ learning initiative is being rolled out for a second year. Tutor enrolment has already started, posters and door-to-door leafleting campaigns start in April, with radio advertising launched in early May. The campaign itself runs from May 20th to June 21st.

The first round of Bite Size was justifiably regarded as a success story. The courses were nearly 30% oversubscribed with nineteen out of twenty students rating their course as either ‘excellent’ or ‘good’. This surprise success was the first national initiative launched by the fledgling LSC.

So, the infrastructure behind this year’s campaign is substantial. In addition to a national office team, each local LSC will have a dedicated staff from their communications, learning programmes and operations directorates who will be supported by regional co-ordinators. External agencies will also work on the campaign: alongside PR, advertising and marketing companies, the LSC has contracted with learndirect to handle enquiries and enrolment through a national free ‘phone number and online service.

Just over £2m will be allocated to local LSCs. With about 12,000 courses planned, each bite sized session is expected to have an average of four participants attending - a generous tutor/student ratio. Like last year, the assumption is that colleges and other providers will offer these ‘tasters’ for free - with a payback later on in the year if a decent proportion enrol on regular courses.

Just as more is being put into Bite Size, so more is expected of it. This year’s campaign has some targets:

However, these targets are pretty soft. Last year, Bite Size achieved 70,000 entrants (although about 15% of registrants did not turn up) whilst a third were first time learners. Of these first time learners, a third subsequently went on to further education. Over three-quarters of students were women and three quarters were aged 40 or over - nearly a third were aged over 60.

However, the first Bite Size courses attracted very few people from ethnic minority backgrounds and this clearly needs to be prioritised in the coming year’s campaign.

Although Bite Size did appeal to people with a long-term health problem or disability (a fifth of all students) it recruited a relatively small proportion of unemployed people (7%). This probably reflects the way that the Incapacity Benefit rules permit independent study whilst the JSA benefit system discourages it.

What else can be learned from the first Bite Size? Research carried out amongst a thousand strong sample of participating students shows some conflicting evidence but justifies the LSC’s plans for Summer 2002.

The most popular courses were in computer studies and IT - with over half of all students. About a sixth were accounted for by arts, crafts and hobbies with about 6% undertaking short courses in beauty, massage and therapies with a similar proportion for languages, sign languages and literature. All other subjects on offer attracted less than 5% of students.

The lessons being learned are important. Significant numbers of people are attracted into learning by these free, accessible and flexible courses. Many are interested in learning more for a ‘recreational’ purpose than for reasons that comply with the vocational strictures (and funding) attached to much conventional learning.

But recreational study should not be downgraded - if it is a sufficient hook on which further learning may be hung, then it is a valid route into more work-related training or education. The high numbers interested in computing subjects is extremely encouraging - as more people appreciate the absolute necessity of basic IT fluency in almost all areas of work and home life.

However, the LSC needs to put Bite Size on a more certain basis in future years. It’s budget needs to be consolidated and the LSC may have to accept that some learning will have to be funded. Until now, providers have delivered courses for free - but fresh air and goodwill do not go very far. Colleges are happy to run these courses during their quiet Summer period with a promise of recruitment into mainstream programmes for the subsequent academic year. If the Bite Size method is proven, then it should run periodically throughout the year with colleges and other providers geared up for rolling recruitment.

If the Government’s lifelong learning targets and its workforce development ambitions are to be realised, the successful Bite Size approach needs to be lifted up to a higher scale.