Meeting Individual Learners’ Needs

Community Learning Skills – Kent Adult Education Service

CLS has a high number of low-level learners who suffer many barriers to learning, resulting in a lack of confidence and achievement. This project resulted in highly dependent and unconfident learners becoming empowered to recognise their own learning and adopt appropriate strategies to develop independence. Subsequently, positive progression has been observed and recorded.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway.


An initial injection of one to one time from a team of volunteers was used to help learners identify their own needs and develop their confidence. They were encouraged to self-assess from the outset and take on responsibility for their learning. Supporting documentation was developed for learners to visualise progress immediately.

We have extended the volunteer project to higher level learners with confidence issues. This has had the same success at promoting independent learning and subsequent progression.

Added value is demonstrated in the higher recognition of the volunteer team as a valuable resource. Robust and meaningful CPD has been instrumental in developing volunteers’ teaching and assessment skills. Some volunteers intend to progress into teaching assistant or teaching roles.

A successful pilot has given rise to the planning of a countywide replication across the skills programme.


Our main function is to provide learning opportunities for adults, young people and families across Kent in order to meet their aspirations for improved work skills; better personal development; strong families; healthy lives and positive contributions to the community.

We engage with local communities to match their needs, based on levels of prosperity, employment and priorities. CLS aims to ensure our services provide learning appropriate to the needs of individuals and families at various stages in their lives. In order to provide appropriate support, we need to be well informed; so, we hold regular learner forums where we can hear the learner voice and adapt accordingly.

The volunteer project was borne from learner forums, which highlighted a need for more individual help for low level learners; language practice sessions for ESOL learners; support workshops for higher levels and ICT training and support.


To ensure viability, we decided to use a volunteer team to provide the extra support needed. We thought if we input an initial investment of time to support learners and empower them to develop independent learning strategies, it would pay dividends in the long term.

The project was piloted in Dartford so we could measure success and solve any problems before planning a countywide roll out.

Pilot Plan:

  1. Identify learner needs through further investigation with learners and tutors.
  2. Organise activity timetable and set up infrastructure to support project.
  3. Development of learner self-assessment; progression and progression summary forms to be used to monitor progress from learner and volunteer perspectives.
  4. Volunteer recruitment.
  5. Volunteer DBS checks, training and CPD including MOODLE volunteer hub and TEAM app.
  6. Volunteer training on self-assessment and progress support forms.
  7. Volunteer management and ongoing support.
  8. Volunteer rewards.
  9. 6 weekly reviews for learners
  10. Project review
  11. Organisational buy in.
  12. Dissemination of project.
  13. Roll out to county and external partners

Professional Learning: Evidence of changes in teaching, learning and assessment practices

The self-assessment tool has proven to be very useful. It was designed to facilitate discussion between learners and volunteer support workers. We noted that the inclusion of social, personal development and British Values allowed us to see more of the learner as a whole person rather than someone who had to develop their English skills. Interestingly the social skills were often affected by the technical. For example, one learner said he was not always assertive because his spoken English was poor. As learning progressed and English improved so did the social element.

Confidence helped learning and, in turn, learning helped confidence.
All learners discussed British Values with much confidence. They demonstrated strong moral compasses and spoke passionately about their beliefs. It resulted in a feeling of success from the outset. Learners appeared to feel valued.

I believe an interesting point for research has arisen with the identification of perceptions of British Values; are they not humanist values? Irrespective of background or culture our learners (within the demographic for this project) cited strong beliefs in mutual respect; intolerance of discrimination; making informed life choices and taking responsibility for them.

It was beneficial for learners to reflect on their studies after a 6-week period. Again, the self-assessment tool was used to facilitate a discussion where the learner could reflect on progression and chart their current position. This was then compared to the last reflective self- assessment log to see if there was any change. In all cases there was positive progression.

One to one time allowed us to focus on individuals and their learning styles. We were able to facilitate learner self-discovery about learning and develop appropriate learning strategies. This empowered learners to take control of their learning and develop outside of the classroom.

Independence was growing as self-belief was developing. For example: one learner worked out that reading wasn’t just about putting letters and words together. He also looked at context and clues. He realised that he could understand the gist of things without being able to read every word. This gave him the confidence to try.

He lost his fear and started to practise reading everywhere he went:

“I’m no longer frightened of reading. It’s in there. I just have to unlock it”
(ML, functional skills English learner)

He started to select the DVDs he wanted to watch through using strategies he had learnt to piece together information. Before this point he had relied on his father to choose for him.

Using a Lunch Club as a learning platform was very effective. We set it up for low level learners who attended English in the morning and maths in the afternoon. Learners had a 1.5-hour break in between sessions, so we used half the time for one-to-one study and half for Lunch Club. Lunch Club involved learners discussing food choices; researching prices and nutrition; shopping; designating a treasurer, buyer and food prepper – it was a social as well as educational event.

Our volunteer devised maths questions for learners to work on, as well as exploring naturally occurring English skills. For example: How many sandwiches can you make from this loaf of bread? How much does the bill add up to and what do you each have to pay? What is the expiry date on that ham and what does it mean? Why are bananas good for you? What do you think of?

The learners thoroughly enjoyed the lunch club experience and the educational aspect:

“Lunch Club is a very good thing to do. I am enjoying it. When I came to the class, I was not doing well but now I get extra support, I am doing better and look forward to coming to class.”
(DD, ESOL Learner)

“Lunch club is good because it helps me to budget. I like to help prepare the food and I enjoy the lunch and being with friends. I like choosing a menu and talking about the food. The one to one practice is very helpful”
(PD, Functional Skills English learner)

After the first lunch, learner LS stated:

“I can’t believe we got all that for £1.68. What a bargain! I’ve really enjoyed the lunch and learning side of it.”

We introduced new foods to taste and then encouraged discussion about smell, sight, taste and touch. Using the senses facilitated improved, and sometimes sophisticated use of adjectives. LS was very animated:

“I really like this persimmon. I like its attractive orange colour. I like its delicious taste.”

DD had an opposing view:

“I don’t like it at all. It has a weird look to it. It has a boring taste and the texture is too hard.”

Interestingly, learners were using vocabulary they wouldn’t normally use in class. However, they are adults with life experiences and their own lexicons, which would not necessarily be reflected in their writing. It demonstrates we cannot make assumptions about vocabulary based solely on written evidence. One-to-one time can afford us more time for verbal assessment and a better understanding of the individual.
We will continue with this sensory exercise with the objective of learners adopting adjective use in a natural way and then transferring the skill to written work.

Learners started to explore nutrition independently and have been making healthier choices. Some have swapped cola for water and herbal tea. They have chosen to eat a boiled egg and salad over a ham and pickle sandwich.

The volunteer has a qualification in Food Hygiene so has been able to transfer practical knowledge to the designated food prepper. I believe the impact of Lunch Club is wider than English and maths. It is also instrumental in people making informed choices and improvements in lifestyle. It is a perfect demonstration of Kent County Council’s ethos of improving lives.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

So far, investing in one to one time to develop learner confidence and independence is really paying off. Everyone involved is noticing a difference, showing that ‘time’ is a sound economical investment. Tutors, volunteers and learners are working together in a very cohesive way, helping learners become independent and responsible individuals.

Working on this project has helped us connect more deeply with literature, debating, discussing and contesting established research in relation to our own findings.

We found it interesting to compare our findings to Hattie (2015), who was investigating how we learn and what motivates us to do so. Hattie says a common objection to his work is that he ignores poverty as a barrier to learning. He claims he does not. He describes poverty as “a killer of high expectations and encouragement to succeed”, and believes teachers should forward everyone a positive experience:

“It is my view that we educators cannot do much to fix poverty. Instead we can offer the best chances to help students, no matter what their home situation is.”
Hattie (2015)

Having impoverished learners on our programme, Hattie’s point is relatable. However, our experience with learners reveals that not all will experience enough positive impact from their teachers’ high expectations to alleviate the damaging impact of poverty. Our work is supporting learners to gain confidence and independence. Nevertheless, we strongly believe that poverty is a structural issue – our high expectations alone cannot alleviate learners’ experiences of poverty.

We also considered Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (Maslow, 1943), where basic human needs must be met before a raise in attainment can occur effectively. This means a lack of money is a real barrier and not just simply an issue of attitude resolvable by a teacher’s input, as in Hattie’s own experience. Most of our pilot learners are poor and must be extremely careful with their finances to survive, a constant worry to them.
Our extra-curricular activities have provided a safe, secure environment where learners can make connections. The extra attention and the practical work on budgeting has helped learners to think about providing their own solutions. This has helped break down barriers, provide positive learning outcomes and create self-esteem – a positive step in motivation according to Maslow’s theory.

Hattie also discusses teacher aides as a distraction. He says they are popular among teachers, but Blatchford et al (2012) couldn’t find any evidence to support learner progression through aides. Hattie states:

“Those students receiving the most support from teacher aides made less progress than similar pupils who received little or no support from teacher aides.” (Hattie, 2015, p.31)

Within this project, we have witnessed our volunteer support workers make a big difference to learner motivation and progression. However, they work differently to the aides Hattie describes. Importantly, volunteers work alongside tutors and support what is happening in the curriculum.

Volunteers are trained and receive ongoing training/mentoring; they are taught to assess and develop learner independence.

I believe this approach towards developing our volunteer team has made all the difference. Our findings reflect other FE-based research, including Redcar and Cleveland College’s work on effective partnerships between teachers and Learning Support Assistants (ETF, 2018).

We have now started to work in collaboration with external partners to widen volunteer participation. It not only benefits learners but also provides potential volunteers with learning and training possibilities.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

Eight learners have been involved in this pilot and have been progressing and achieving well in both English and soft skills. Lunch Club has been a great opportunity for learners to practise skills in a discreet way.

Our two case studies and supporting materials (including learner self-assessments; volunteer records and learner progress summaries) are a general indicator of the learner group and the progress they have made.

The one-to-one time given to learners has enabled learners and volunteers to co-construct strategies for independent learning. Learners are using these strategies outside of the classroom and growing in confidence in their abilities. They have progressed to the point where they can now be given work to do and left for short periods of time. They are understanding more about their own learning styles and thinking of ways to enhance their learning themselves.

It is too early to tell if there will be an effect on retention, although one learner was going to leave due to mental stress as he felt overwhelmed in the normal classroom environment. We gave him some extra one-to-one time, which helped enormously, and he stayed with us.

With a growing awareness of mental health issues and its effects, learning providers must become more proactive, promoting understanding and developing strategies for those learners in need. It is a complex issue, but a common thread is a need to build confidence, resilience and coping skills. Our project is helping learners develop these skills and we hope to see an increase in retention rates in the future.

Learning from this project

Lunch Club has been a very natural and effective way of practising English, maths and social skills. It also provides a forum where learners can discuss food from other countries and learn about different cultures, giving learners opportunities for social interaction they may not otherwise get. It has many positive aspects, and we believe it will be good practice to replicate cross-county.

The timing of extra-curricular initiatives is important. We noticed learners would not come in especially for this extra support even though they had requested it. We had to abandon one session due to lack of uptake and reschedule it on a day when the learners were already in the building and engaged with learning. Extra-curricular work between classroom sessions was popular and effective. We also found that extra-curricular work was more effective when we booked a separate room. Learners were distracted in their classroom as tutors and TAs were still present to prepare for the next lesson.

An interesting point to note: all learners on this project asked to take part. Nobody was compelled to join in. This could be one motivating factor towards the good progress made so far. We are hoping that others will see the benefits and take up the offer and we intend to continue to work on strategies to engage these harder to reach clients.

Collaboration with mainstream tutors has been vital. Collaborative work has enabled us to tie extra-curricular activity in with teaching, so they work in harmony to benefit the learner. This has helped reinforce classroom learning and will potentially improve achievement too.

The project has highlighted what a valuable resource a volunteer can be. Their contribution can be even more valued when it is pro-active and adds an extra dimension to the learning experience. The volunteers at CLS are viewed as part of the wider teaching team; they have management, support, training and CPD like any other staff member. Some are working towards a role as a teaching assistant or practitioner.
Ongoing training with a designated volunteer trainer has been important for the volunteer team to develop their skills and confidence. They are a very keen team who spend much of their own time researching teaching, learning and assessment. The team currently has four volunteers, each of whom who wish to work in education. There was one other, but he has now left volunteering to teach German for our organisation. He is studying for his teaching qualification at the same time.

The dual aspect of caring for learners and for volunteers is paying off as everyone appears valued and motivated. It is important to work closely with tutors so there is mutual respect and understanding, and everyone can work as a team towards shared goals.

We concur with Hattie’s advocation to create circumstances for success and “remove barriers in whatever way possible.” However, it is naive to think improvement is solely borne from a learner being influenced by a positive teacher attitude. Our research has shown that well used extra time to forge connections and learn about individuals has been invaluable for progress. Volunteers have been instrumental to this success. It is important to reiterate however that volunteers must be well trained and supported.
Accurate record keeping is essential to monitor the impact of this work. We have only just started but are already getting extremely positive feedback from all concerned.

Taking a hands-on approach as project lead has been vital. My work training volunteers helped me understand the impact of the project and notice where improvements could be made. For instance, I soon became aware that not all volunteers keep the same standard of comprehensive records. This is an area for further development, as constant monitoring and feedback is vital to understand the impact of our work.

We feel very positive that we will see good results over the next year and will encourage action research within the learning environment to ascertain and adopt best practice. We have now expanded our activity to Gravesend and will provide extra support for 70 learners with the aid of seven volunteers.