A lack of equal access to lifelong learning and education entrenches divisions in our society. This results in adults being unable to break free from a cycle of unemployment, low paid roles, wages and poor life chances. The current skills and productivity gap is also already holding back our economy, with four million fewer adults participating in education now than in 2010.

This situation is now deepening, and divisions are widening. Universal Credit claims were made at the rate of 100 per minute at the end of March 2020 (Learning and Work Institute), we are being told that unemployment will rise exponentially in 2021, and businesses will continue to be particularly hard hit in the North due to higher restriction levels in most areas. This is in a climate where already four million fewer adults participate in education now than in 2010, as a result of a lack of investment on a national level.

Northern College, the only adult residential college in the North, is helping to bridge this learning gap by supporting adults who are unemployed or on low wages back into education to improve their life chances, and turn their lives around. The aim is to support adults including those impacted by Covid-19 to rebuild their confidence and progress, gain employment or retrain for a new career – breaking this cycle of deprivation whilst meeting employer skills gaps to help rebuild our economy.

The college has a long history of engaging adults who have no or few qualifications, are unemployed or in low paid roles – in addition to adults who want to retrain. Despite this, its students rapidly progress and excel in their studies, and transform their lives.

This includes adults who otherwise may have had low aspirations and lacked confidence to study. Student achieve a 100% pass rate for Access to Higher Education students, GCSE grades 18 per cent above the national average and 96 per cent of short course students report they feel motivated to progress their learning (2018-19) when they join.

Northern College for Adults also runs a Future Ambitions programme to support adults to restart their career or retrain through the development of a personalised progression plan and learning package. This provides access to a wide range of flexible essential skills adult training programmes for adult students and employers, including English and Maths, digital, employability skills, access to healthcare professions, policing, social care, teacher education, counselling, mental health, volunteering, youth work, and more.

Flexible learning opportunities for students and employers at its campus are run alongside blended learning opportunities at Wentworth Castle, a Grade 1 listed building located in South Yorkshire, set in over 500 acres of beautiful gardens and parkland. This outdoor environment also provides an immersive experience for adults, away from the pressures of everyday life.

The college’s residential accommodation and associated wrap around support services are core to Northern College and, for many students, crucial to their success. On campus, adults work together for an intensive period of time, rebuilding their confidence to learn, engaging with like-minded peers and becoming part of an adult learning community. The teaching and support team specialises in working with adults and mature students, and has the progression of every adult student at the forefront of everything they do.

We also support jobs-based recovery programmes to meet employer skills gaps and rebuild the economy to enable it to recover and grow. SMEs report that their skills gaps are rapidly changing, and that these gaps will impact on their ability to grow and develop in the future (AoC).  Therefore, our teaching and learning programme is shaped by extensive employer engagement to ensure they meet the current needs of employers and support jobs-based recovery, whilst providing our adult learners with the skills they need to progress. The college also recognises that seven in 10 believe colleges are important to business for training and retraining staff (AoC).

But it’s not just about upskilling for economics, it’s about transforming individuals and communities too. The impact of Covid-19 on the emotional wellbeing of adults across our communities is significant.

To bridge this gap and rebuild our communities, Northern College also works alongside voluntary and community organisations, alongside wider partners, to engage adults into education to support emotional wellbeing whilst building confidence, motivation and future aspirations to progress. Examples include engaging adults who are affected by substance misuse remotely during lockdown, to build their confidence to re-enter education and progress, working alongside recovery charity Anew. The success of this work means we are now in negotiations with other residential recovery organisations to expand this provision locally and regionally.

Our strategic plan for Northern College for the next three years focuses on jobs-based recovery whilst promoting employability, social justice and social mobility – in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. We will also build stronger families and communities, and enable digital inclusion.

This will be made possible through our unique adult learning community, partnership work and long-standing history of successfully engaging adults to re-enter education to progress their careers and transform their lives.

We must all work together to rebuild a bigger and brighter future whilst transforming communities, and where inequalities no longer play a part.


Professor Bob Harrison is Co-Chair of Northern College of Adult Residential Education and Visiting Professor  at the Wolverhampton University