Supporting hard to reach adult learners in the community

North Yorkshire County Council

How do you reach learners who can no longer access classroom-based learning and lack digital solutions? Our project aimed to provide access to learning for these forgotten learners.

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


North Yorkshire is the largest rural county by area in England. It comprises diverse communities characterised by contrasting forms of both affluence and deprivation with Scarborough being amongst the 20% most deprived in England (affecting 39,000 people) as indicated in the Indices of Deprivation (English indices of deprivation, 2019).

The impact of COVID-19 highlighted the barriers to learning for a high proportion of adults due to the lack of online access along with a deficiency in ICT skills. This additional barrier impacted on learners’ access to provision and their ability to learn. We therefore needed to plan to address this and remove “elements of the task that are initially beyond the learner’s capability, thus permitting him to concentrate upon and complete only those elements that are within his range of competence” (Vygotsky, 1978).

During the 6-week project we would concentrate on a non-accredited course focussed on maths and English to engage learners and use other methods including non-digital delivery to remove barriers and build confidence. We planned for this to lead into further accredited learning where appropriate.


The focus of our project was around finding ways to engage and motivate learners who are most vulnerable within our provision. The unprecedented move to online teaching had been successful for many but there were a significant number unable to engage online.

Initial assessment outcomes all learners

Initial assessment outcomes all learners

Our project was to support these ‘forgotten’ learners who faced the biggest challenges to continue to engage in learning. We recognised the need to approach these learners with a more holistic offer and targeted support without the added pressure of doing tests or exams. We expected these to be our lowest level learners and include those with limited access to ICT. We were very aware that we needed to overcome significant barriers. “Motivating digitally excluded citizens to engage with the digital world can be difficult. To do this successfully requires compelling ‘hooks’ for each person, and each organisation” (Citizens online, 2020). We decided that our ‘hook’ would be the one-to-one support predominantly using phone contact initially and interventions would be based around learner interests.

Some of the outcomes we hoped for included:

  • increased levels of engagement and retention of learners through regular pastoral and teacher support
  • better opportunities to improve confidence through ‘learn to learn’ type activities
  • progression of learners to accredited courses in maths and English where appropriate
  • provision of basic digital skills where ICT resources allowed


Preparation phase:

  • worked with Learning, Guidance and Support Officers (LGSO) to identify learners who were unable or unwilling to engage online and had a preference for classroom-based learning. In total 76 potential learners were identified, 47 for English and 29 for maths.
  • made initial contact with all learners to gauge interest in joining the project and to identify their learning needs, their barriers to learning and how these could be addressed. 12 English learners and 14 maths learners completed the initial assessments which provided a wealth of information.
  • created learning journals during this initial interaction so each learner could state their goals, reflect on sessions and assess their own progress (Appendix 2). This replaced their usual online assessment. Learners completed this throughout. Case study examples (Appendix 7.1-7.4).
  • English learners were not able to proceed past this phase due to lack of teacher phone access.
  • allocated each learner a subject specialist teacher and shared contact information shared.
  • reviewed initial contact information which provided a useful insight into learner cohorts for Maths and English: shared at the interim dissemination event (Appendices 3 and 4). When asked about learning needs 33% of learners identified themselves as Dyslexic and only 14% identified no health or related issues.
  • amended learner journals to reflect key findings from interim review. We removed the question that asked about learner interest as most feedback had been none. Teachers sought this information through conversations once a relationship was formed.

The course proceeded as follows for maths learners:

  • arranged weekly one-to-one meetings with the learners by phone
  • meetings were by phone, email or posted mail
  • identified and agreed targets at the outset.
  • learners worked through the activities provided and completed their journals regularly, reflecting on work completed and any changes required
  • tracker was updated regularly to review progress of learners
  • some learners were unable to engage in the project and bespoke resources were posted to them along with LGSO contact details for follow-up
  • identified opportunities for ICT support: some learners moved to using Zoom for group meetings in addition to one-to-one support.

Follow-up and reflection at the end of the 6-week course:

  • sought learner feedback on their experience (Appendix 6)
  • offered learners accredited learning at end of initial 6 weeks and all learners have progressed to accredited learning
  • identified opportunities for ICT support; some learners moved to using Zoom for group meetings in addition to one-to-one support
  • reviewed outcomes for all learners engaged in project (Appendix 5)
  • completed post course interviews with case study learners (Appendices 8.1-8.4)
  • reflected on missed opportunities and approach going forward given likely continuation of online learning

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

At the beginning of the project, we produced a learner journal to be used during initial contact with learners. This included set questions around the information we would need to positively engage and support learners. There was a focus on personal interests to generate enjoyment and motivation, which would increase attention and perceived value of learning. (Hidi & Renninger, 2006)

While collating data, we noticed that learners had not completed open questions, particularly around hobbies and interests so we decided that type of information was best collected during learning sessions when trust and confidence had increased. Reflecting on these data findings, we quickly adjusted the journal to highlight information on specific requirements only.

All staff were keen to support learners and had a clear knowledge of how they could access appropriate learning opportunities. Learners were added to a tracking spreadsheet with all appropriate information and monthly discussions allowed us to share information and decide on the best course of action.
Assessments, usually completed on an online site, were replaced with self- assessment questions in the reflective journals. Teachers used this information to set individual targets with the learners and set stretch and challenge activities. This ensured that learners could continue to work around their individual needs and the teacher could continue to build confidence and work at an appropriate pace.

Teachers and curriculum managers accessed a range of training courses to support our project. These included engaging and motivating learners, monitoring and evaluating progress, creating meaningful targets and developing better engagement. This supported work with all learners and were accessed by teachers and managers.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

This project provided an opportunity to support the confidence of learners in accessing appropriate learning. The LGSO’s were able to identify those who were vulnerable due to lack of ICT skills in an ICT world as everything moved online. curriculum managers for maths and English led the project and collaborated closely throughout, jointly completing monthly update reports and holding meetings with staff involved.

We have had a closer working relationship with Learning, Guidance and Support Officers and this has helped to identify learners who would benefit from the project. LGSO’s identified additional learners throughout the project and highlighted that many had additional needs. Some of these learners had accessed classroom-based provision previously and were known to staff. One teacher was able to work across both curriculums to provide the initial contact for all learners. It was evident that the first intervention with learners was key to establishing confidence and allaying any concerns learners had about inclusion in this project.

Our contact with another provider highlighted the difficulties of working in our large geographic rural area as they had been able to hand deliver resources with their own learners. Many of our council sites were repurposed for COVID-19 related activities, preventing return to classroom-based delivery and we used postal services to ensure that resources were available to learners.

The methods we have used to contact and support learners will be used in the future for learners who cannot attend classroom-based learning and lack digital skills. We will also continue with a 6 week non accredited programme in the classroom for low level learners to engage and build confidence.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

There were 12 Maths learners who completed the 6-week intervention programme. 11 out of 12 (92%) learners used this as a stepping stone to accredited provision.

Appendix 4 summarises all learners initial assessments.

Those of particular interest are outlined below:

Case study 1 (AA) – A refugee learner had previously accessed provision, achieving level 1 maths but had withdrawn due to no ICT access and lack of confidence in online learning. He gained confidence and purchased a laptop which created an opportunity to complete an online maths qualification needed for future career aspirations in social work (Appendices 7.1 and 8.1)

AA – ‘All worked completed on time and well’

Case study 2 (BB) – An entry level learner who struggled to attend due to childcare issues. Her preferred way of working was using ‘paper and pen’ and she depended on the teacher for wider advice and guidance as reflected in end of course feedback. She has now been accepted on an Open University business studies and management diploma and is also doing equine psychology with a view to setting up her own business. (Appendices 7.2 and 8.2)

BB – ‘I can’t thank my teacher enough for being so helpful and knowing he is always there if I need any information and very informative’

Case study 3 (CC) – An Entry Level learner who was motivated to learn to support her children and her own development. Although she had access to ICT she lacked confidence in joining an online learning environment. She recognised her increased ICT skills and now engages online and feels much more confident to support own children. This learner has moved to an online maths course following the initial intervention. (Appendices 7.3 and 8.3)

CC – ‘I’m very pleased with how the course went I’m able to see progress myself which has given me a confidence boost. My tutor made me fill comfortable and determined’

Case study 4 (DD) – This learner had completed classroom-based delivery in the past but had no ICT access so was unable to complete any online provision. His main motivation was for return to employment. He continues to access one-to-one support using phone only and reflects that this works well for him. He is actively seeking employment and wanting to complete more maths (Appendices 7.4 and 8.4)

DD: I want to continue with this method of learning especially as I have to wait till my ankle gets better. I am happy with the way Liz and I work on the telephone. Obviously, I would like to be in a classroom situation before an assessment is taken.
I do want to progress to higher levels.

Learning from this project

What went well:

  • Learner Engagement
    Staff worked well to identify learners who would benefit from this provision. The initial contact created a positive experience and allowed learners to share their preferences for learning. Staff advised on appropriate opportunities and set targets. We carefully chose staff with advanced empathy skills, relevant experience and excellent communication styles ensuring retention and progression.
  • Addressing rural isolation
    Many North Yorkshire learners are socially isolated. This project allowed learners to engage which supported their wellbeing along with their learning.
  • Increased learner confidence
    The learners used the reflective journals to give feedback and interview transcripts capture evidence of learners’ belief in their own skills and improved self -confidence. This outcome from the project was one of the most powerful for these learners enabling them to see past any barriers to learning.
  • Learner progression
    92% of learners who completed the 6-week course have progressed into accredited learning. Some have taken this a step further and focussed on future career development.
  • Learner achievement
    Learners recognised improved digital confidence and subject skills. Staff flexibility ensured engagement from the outset. The project improved learner experiences and outcomes along with softer underlying skills. All learners who progressed to Entry Level 3 have achieved and learners who progressed to Level 1 and Level 2 are on track to achieve by the end of July.

Even better if:

  • Staff ICT kit
    Lack of council-approved teacher ICT kit meant that we couldn’t engage with all the learners that were signposted to this programme. This was a missed opportunity and is being addressed for the next academic year.
  • Digital poverty – learners
    Our data highlighted that English learners had a higher rate of digital poverty than maths learners. Provision of ICT kit to learners without access would have ensured inclusion and engagement of all.

Summary statement
The investment of time and resources in providing one-to-one informal interventions through a 6-week non accredited programme has been extremely successful. The focus on individual contact and support has ensured engagement, retention and inclusion for our most vulnerable learners. This method has encouraged the majority of learners who completed the course to springboard into accredited learning and given them the confidence to take this further into developing future career aspirations.


Citizens Online, (2020). Digital Inclusion across Harrogate District. Findings and recommendations. V15

English deprivation indices (2019)

Hidi,S., Renninger, K. A. (2006) The four-phase model of interest development. Educational Psychologist, 41:111 – 127.doi:10.1207/s 15326985eo4102_4

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978) Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Other reading that influenced our thinking during the project

Cohen, G. L., Garcia, J., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Apfel, N., & Brzustoski, P. (2009) Recursive processes in self-affirmation: Intervening to close the minority achievement gap. Science, 324(5925), 400-403.

Cohen, G. L., & Sherman, D. K. (2014) The psychology of change: self-affirmation and social psychological intervention. Annual Review of Psychology, 65, 333–71.

Sherman, D. K., & Cohen, G. L. (2006) The psychology of self‐defense: Self‐affirmation theory. Advances in experimental social psychology, 38, 183-242.