Activism

National Extension College: A second chance at learning

Education can be the route to a better life but plenty of people miss out first time around. The National Extension College offers another opportunity in the classroom

Woman studying online

For many young people across Britain, the past couple of weeks have been a nervy, exciting time. After exam results landed, a huge number are now busy planning their future at college or university. For others, first steps on their working life beckons.

But what happens to those who never got the chance to finish their education at all? Or for those who were let down, failed by a system there to build for the future?

A unique college is offering people the opportunity to have another run – to make a success of learning second time around.

The National Extension College is set up to reach people and places the rest of the education system cannot

The National Extension College (NEC) provides adults of all ages and backgrounds the chance to embark on GCSEs and A Levels, as well as a wide range of vocational and business courses. And Big Issue vendors and Britain’s prisoners are among the often left-behind groups able to take advantage of the opportunity to gain much-needed qualifications.

Set up to reach people and places the rest of the education system can’t – including prisons – the NEC allows would-be learners to sign up for online courses. Based in Cambridge, the distance-learning charity provides course materials and the tutors to help students through the work remotely, keeping in touch by email or Skype.

“If you left school without any qualifications, for whatever reason, it needn’t be the end of your education,” says the NEC’s chief executive Dr Ros Morpeth, who describes herself as a “second-chance learner”, having gone to university as a mature student. “Everyone deserves a second chance.”

Prisoners

The college works closely with the Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET) to overcome the barriers of the prison walls and to broaden educational opportunities for offenders. Recent Ministry of Justice research shows that the reoffending rate among prisoners who took advantage of PET funding grants to gain qualifications was just 19 per cent, compared to 26 per cent among prisoners who did not study.

“We get phone calls and messages from people all the time who have got their qualifications, found work and gone on to build a better life,” explains Morpeth. “It is an amazing feeling to know you’ve been able to make a difference in someone’s life. We’re trying to help people give themselves opportunities they didn’t think were possible.”

Some of this year’s recruits are set to come from the ranks of The Big Issue’s hard-working sales men and women. The National Extension College is working with The Big Issue on a bursary scheme to give magazine vendors interested in studying the chance to enroll and boost their employability – whether by gaining vital qualifications they missed out on as teenagers, or furthering their professional development through business courses.

Morpeth explains that military personnel in search of qualifications, professionals looking to fit study around jobs, and pensioners looking for the chance to learn something new are among the many different kinds of students using the NEC. Some people with disabilities or health issues value the chance to complete courses from home.

While bursaries and grant funding have been cut over the years, some employers and appropriate charities do help students cover the cost of NEC courses, most of which range from £425 to £625, with some discounts available.

The recent changes to A level and GCSE specifications initiated by former education secretary Michael Gove have proved challenging for the college since they involved redesigning nearly 40 courses in a short time. With this work now in its final stage, Morpeth says that the future of the college looks bright.

Big Issue Invest

Big Issue Invest, the social investment arm of The Big Issue Group, has helped finance the work of the National Extension College. In fact, Big Issue Invest is providing finance for several life-changing organisations working to address and prevent poverty across the country.

“The National Extension College gives prisoners and people from all walks of life a second chance to finish their education or gain qualifications,” says Alan Tudhope, investment manager at Big Issue Invest. “We are delighted to have invested in the college because they are handing people a vital opportunity to improve their lives.”

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
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