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Strategies for the training of persons who have become distanced from education from a provider point of view

Educational inequalities continue within the area of lifelong learning. In order to use continuing education as a vehicle for increasing the employment opportunities of persons who have become distanced from education and to tap into the areas of potential they offer, the focus needs to be on overcoming various obstacles. The 2015 Continuing Training Monitor (wbmonitor) collected assessments from continuing education and training providers as to how participation of persons who have become distanced from education may be raised. The present article uses these evaluations as a basis for providing impetuses for strategies which promise to deliver success in this regard.

Continuing education of persons who have become distanced from education – obstacles and areas of potential

The term “persons who have become distanced from education” is applied to those who take little part in institutionalised education due to a range of social circumstances (cf. BREMER/KLEEMANN-GÖHRING/WAGNER 2015, p. 17). Most such persons hold low levels of educational and vocational qualifications (cf. ibid.). This means that many of them have failed to obtain a formal VET certificate. The term “continuing education gap” has been in existence for some decades and characterises the fact that continuing education tends to reinforce inequalities in the educational level rather than compensating for them (SCHULENBERG et al. 1978, p. 525). If consideration is solely accorded to continuing education participation rates, this situation still applies today. Whereas the Adult Education Survey (AES) indicated that 68 per cent of those holding academic qualifications participated in continuing education in 2016, the corresponding figure for persons not in possession of a recognised vocational qualification was only 34 per cent (cf. BMBF 2017, p. 32). Given the significantly higher labour market risk to which the latter are exposed, this appears to be an alarming statistic (cf. IAB 2017). Even if the economic situation proves to be consistently good, no assumption can be made that chances of employment will improve for persons who have become distanced from education. A stronger degree of encouragement to take part in continuing education, especially with the goal of obtaining a recognised vocational qualification, could both enhance individual labour market and life chances and help to cover the shortage of skilled workers.

Nevertheless, increasing the continuing education participation of persons who have become distanced from education needs to be viewed as one of the main problem areas in this sector. Distance from education is frequently expressed in the form of negative notions of and attitudes towards continuing education. There is a particular lack of perceptions as to the possible benefits of such training (cf. ibid.; BOLDER 2006). Alongside further individual factors that impede participation in education and training, such as financing problems or general life circumstances (cf. BREMER/KLEEMANN-GÖHRING/WAGNER 2015; AMBOS 2005; BRÜNING/KUWAN 2002), the structures of continuing education can also be identified as a hurdle. The unclear nature of the provider system makes it difficult to compare educational and training provision and to assess the quality of such services. Disjointed Federal Government and Federal State funding mechanisms and a low level of awareness of some support instruments are additional aspects in this regard. This means that potential participants in continuing education need to seek out guidance for themselves, a feat which is beyond many persons who have become distanced from education. There is, in addition, the commonly held view that continuing education institutions are unable to achieve adequate social and cultural access to the lifeworld of the educationally disadvantaged (cf. BREMER/KLEEMANN-GÖHRING/WAGNER 2015, p. 19). Together with the individual and structural barriers, the consequence of this is that a “double distance” is encountered (ibid., p. 17).

Continuing Training Monitor

The Continuing Training Monitor (wbmonitor) is an annual national online survey of training providers conducted every May by the BIBB in conjunction with the Deutsches Institut für Erwachsenenbildung – Leibniz-Zentrum für Lebenslanges Lernen (DIE) [German Institute for Adult Education – Leibniz Centre for Lifelong Learning]. The focus of the 2015 survey was on “Public continuing education funding of participants”.

Open survey of continuing education providers

As part of the 2015 Continuing Training Monitor (cf. Information Box), continuing education providers were asked the following question: “From your point of view, what are the pathways which promise success in terms of motivating those who have become distanced from education or educationally disadvantaged persons to take part in continuing education?” 815 of the 1,476 providers responding to the survey provided an answer to this openly formulated question. The scope of these responses ranged from the stating of individual keywords to detailed field reports indicating measures derived. An inductive approach was used to develop a hierarchically structured categorical scheme from these respondent-defined descriptions. This contained main and sub-levels, and information provided was aligned to all relevant categories. Because no response categories were pre-defined and given the breadth and complexity of the topic, account needs to be taken of the fact that sub-aspects (sub-levels) may be comparatively unlikely to be stated. The evaluation is based on those institutions whose main or ancillary task is the provision of continuing education (n = 767). No consideration was thus accorded to providers exclusively offering general continuing education.

Reaching out persons who have become distanced from education – a main and multi-layered task

The result was the identification of six relevant main topic areas (cf. Figure). Frequency of distribution makes it clear that the aspects to which the greatest degree of significance is given are information, guidance and type of approach adopted (43 %), target group-specific design and structuring of provision (37 %), and costs and state funding (35 %).

The multiple stating of aspects of the topic area of information, guidance and type of approach adopted (43 %) underlines the challenge of initially reaching out to the target group in an effective way and of reducing deficits in information. The issue most commonly addressed in this regard was using target group-specific public relations measures as a vehicle for bringing about an improvement in the information base (20 %). Television is viewed as a suitable medium for undertaking a fundamental image campaign. The press (e.g. free newspapers), social networks on the Internet, information events, and trade fair stands are also appropriate for some of the advertising activities pursued by the institutions. The importance of mouth-to-mouth propaganda was also repeatedly emphasised. Beyond the imparting of information, respondents felt that continuing education guidance related to individual prior learning and preferences could illustrate practical pathways to continuing education and raise awareness of state funding opportunities (16 %). Because groups of persons who have become distanced from education are unlikely to act independently in seeking out the guidance provision offered by the institutions, a direct approach on the part of the latter and forms of active continuing education advice or educational services were thought to be useful. These possibilities were, however, stated by only a small proportion of providers (4 %). This could be an indication that human resources and cost-intensive structures are under-developed and that relevant concepts have not tended to be frequently pursued thus far. In order to reach the target groups within their living environment, the use of mobile guidance centres in residential areas, shopping centres or supermarket car parks could, for example, be expanded. Intermediaries or multipliers (13 %) also seem to be a suitable means of overcoming the distance between the institutions and groups of persons who have become distanced from education and of creating access. These include so-called milieu ambassadors or bridging persons, who have proximity with the target group in social or cultural terms, and other persons who are in occupational contact (such as social workers). Last but not least, the institutions also perceive that employment agencies, Job Centres and employers all have a duty to help secure the participation of persons who have become distanced from education in continuing training.

Figure: Thematic areas and selected partial aspects which from the provider point of view are relevant to participation in continuing education by groups of persons who have become distanced from education
(proportions in per cent, multiple responses possible)Source: BIBB/DIE Continuing Training Monitor 2015. Information from n = 767 continuing education providers

The thematic area of motivation, incentives, perspectives (20 %) ensues from the information and guidance work carried out and aims to achieve a change in notions and attitudes that are hindering participation. In order to increase motivation to take part in continuing education, several providers (10 %) believe that it is conducive for the benefits of such participation to be visible in the form of subsequent occupational prospects and the attendant expectation that these will lead to an improved financial situation. This could be communicated via milieu-related case examples and success stories. At the same time, respondents indicated that motivation can in particular be generated if there is already a specific prospect of a job offer or of an opportunity for promotion. One way of encouraging the delivery of targeted training of this nature could be via enhanced cooperation between the institutions and companies. A further idea put forward was that it should be easier for staff to be released from work duties in order to take part in phases of training. Financial incentives for participation in continuing education were directly proposed less frequently (4 %) than aspects relating to motivation via improved prospects. The former included increased benefits for unemployed persons during the period of a training measure or the payment of a bonus for successful completion of a programme.

A desire for unbureaucratic support

Once the hurdles associated with reaching out to persons who have become distanced from education have been overcome and motivation to take part in continuing education has fundamentally been achieved, the fact that the financial resources available to the target group are frequently low gives rise to the issue concerning costs and funding assistance from the state (35 %). A comparatively small number of institutions point out that free or low-cost participation should be possible (5 %). They were significantly more likely to address the topic of state funding for continuing education or to mention individual funding instruments (30 %). Further differentiation of this category makes it clear that providers are more in favour of optimising existing funding structures (15 %) and less inclined to express a preference for completely new or additional financing instruments (2 %). From the provider point of view, the main area in which action is required is a reduction in the bureaucracy of regulations and procedures. Both the demand and supply sides were addressed in this regard. In relation to participants, the fundamental preference expressed was that funding instruments should be structured more simply and made more easily accessible. Specific proposals (such as issuing fixed-value vouchers capable of flexible use) were however, made only rarely. With regard to what would be beneficial in reducing bureaucracy in institutions, respondents made particular mention of legislative simplifications for provider registrations and of streamlining the administrative process of cost accounting for state-funded continuing education participation. Because of a lack of profitability, institutions were withdrawing from the domain of publicly-funded continuing education or else were reluctant to enter the field. This was exerting a negative effect on the structure of provision for persons who have become distanced from education.

Persons who have become distanced from education require target group-specific formats

More than a third of institutions (37 %) addressed the subject of target group-specific design and structuring of continuing education provision. In order to facilitate (re)entry to organised education and training provision for groups of persons who have become distanced from education, 16 per cent of institutions mentioned the keyword “low threshold” or related content or organisational aspects. When it comes to the initial level of requirements for training programmes, low threshold access takes account of the fact that many persons who have become distanced from education are unaccustomed to learning. Contents are introduced slowly, and the level rises gradually. Organisational hurdles can also be reduced via means such as

  • conducting courses within the social environment of the target group or arranging an easily accessible venue,
  • providing free or low-cost participation,
  • offering course times which take account of family commitments,
  • or putting support services such as childcare in place.

One further aspect of target group-appropriate training design to which the providers made constant reference was that the learning contents should be tailored in as precise a manner as possible to the individual needs and prior learning of participants (8 %). The view was that the most effective way of achieving this was in small groups or via individual coaching sessions. Current funding structures, particularly the cost rates set within the field of measures financed by the employment agencies or Job Centres, did not, however, usually permit this. Respondents further indicated that education and training provision should be designed in as practically related a form as possible (5 %). The motivation of participants would be strengthened if the applicable benefits of the learning contents were clearly discernible. Support in this regard can be afforded by combining teaching with practical placements, phases of company-based application, or assisted work opportunities. Forms of learning that are integrated into the workplace are also suitable for this purpose. The providers were comparatively unlikely to make mention of designing training measures in modules containing certified partial qualifications which in their entirety lead to a recognised vocational qualification (2 %). This phased training model sets the entry barrier lower, produces a sense of success more quickly, and permits, if necessary, the insertion of breaks in training between individual modules without causing participation to be discontinued. Finally, some providers called for basic courses to be scheduled upstream to specialist training (4 %). Examples include language courses for migrants whose knowledge of German is inadequate, literacy programmes or courses aimed at establishing a stable lifestyle.

Reference is also made to the personal life circumstances of the target group via mentions of the thematic area of assistance, support and coaching, although only just under one in ten (9 %) of text statements could be aligned to this topic. The providers are in favour of better funding for socio-pedagogical supervision and believe that such support should in all cases be closely interlinked with the specialist training itself. The aim here is for participation in training to be accompanied by work to resolve personal sets of problems. This would enable a greater focus to be placed on learning contents whilst also reducing the inhibitions which prevent integration. Back-up support and coaching provision could also help assist the learning process. Reflecting upon learning progress and existing deficits and the insights such a procedure provides may serve as a guiding landmark for the further course of education and training participation.

The thematic area of cooperation and networking (10 %) may relate to various aspects and to this extent should be viewed as a cross-process support structure. Network structures appear to be particularly helpful in terms of creating a point of access to the target group of persons who have become distanced from education (see above). Furthermore, cooperation with companies allows continuing education and training provision to be aligned to the needs and requirements of the workplace. Within the scope of this thematic area, respondents also called for closer collaboration and better harmonisation with the employment agencies/Job Centres and with the advisors and placement staff at these institutions. This was, however, only an object of criticism in a small number of cases.

Statements which could not be allocated to any of the thematic areas listed and which each related to aspects only mentioned in isolated cases were subsumed into the category of other (22 %). These included the following points:

  • Preventative work should take place in the pre-school sector and in general education.
  • Introducing sanctions for non-attendance of continuing education measures in the form of reduction of social benefits was an effective way of securing mandatory participation.
  • General comments were made with regard to the quality of providers and of the staff they employ.

Funding structures which take greater account of the inhibitions faced by persons who have become distanced from education

Although the present article has only been able to offer a brief summary of aspects relevant to increasing participation in continuing education by persons who have become distanced from education, it is clear that we face a multi-layered undertaking that will require a longer-term approach. The mobilisation of persons who have become distanced from education is fundamentally possible. This has, for example, been made apparent within the scope of a number of pilot projects funded by the State of North Rhine-Westphalia (cf. BREMER/KLEEMANN-GÖHRING/ WAGNER 2015). Exploratory educational formats developed in conjunction with intermediaries have proved to be particularly forward looking. The higher human resources expenditure involved in approaches of this nature, which emerge from necessary networking, should be appropriately considered within funding structures. Local government bodies such as educational offices could support and coordinate the establishment and maintenance of cooperation structures between continuing education institutions, intermediaries and their organisations in the field of education and social work, companies in the region and sponsors. Continuing education advisory bodies which are often housed at providers (such as at adult education centres) and issue funding such as the training grant, could be expanded to encompass mobile forms of guidance. The results presented further suggest that information work should be stepped up via vehicles such as a milieu-specific image campaign in relevant social media. The continuing education measures themselves should be designed in a low-threshold and practically related way, should be conducted in small groups and should include social-pedagogical supervision and learning support wherever possible. On the other hand, the practical implementation of simplified access to support instruments with a view to targeting the deployment of public funding to the benefit of educationally disadvantaged persons without creating considerable “windfall effects” for those who already value education and training is likely to be difficult to achieve. There is no doubt that using a sustainable, holistic and national funding strategy to take account of the feasible aspects listed would lead to a significant increase in costs. Nevertheless, the question arises as to the long-term societal costs to be set off against such investments if insufficient use is made of the potential offered by persons who have become distanced from education.


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SCHULENBERG, W. et al.: Soziale Faktoren der Bildungsbereitschaft Erwachsener. Stuttgart 1978

Research Associate in the “Qualifications, Occupational Integration and Employment” Division at BIBB

Student Researcher in the “Qualifications, Occupational Integration and Employment” Division at BIBB


Translation from the German original (published in BWP 1/2018): Martin Kelsey, GlobalSprachTeam, Berlin