The Way Back In
According to research, approach to education is distinctly gendered. For women, it’s tied inextricably with the construction of self-worth. For female survivors of abuse, trafficking and other severe hardships, rebuilding confidence through learning and qualifications is integral to future stability, but in the UK the return to education after any sort of gap is fraught with invisible barriers. Journalist Amandas Ong investigates.
Throughout her 20s, when many of her peers were starting out in their chosen careers, Kirsty Young was struggling to return to school. At 19, she had just escaped a six-year-long abusive relationship with an older man who held her captive and subjected her to psychological and sexual violence. The ordeal disrupted her education severely. Having failed most of her GCSE exams and heavily pregnant with her third child, she believed her future was bleak. Determined to cheat fate, she signed up for a college course in health and social care.
‘The first year, I didn’t know how to speak to people after being isolated for so long,’ Young, now 35, recalls. Her classmates were mostly aged 16 or younger, and she steered clear of them at first, afraid of judgment for being a single mother. Juggling childcare and her studies, she eventually won a bursary that enabled her to enrol at the University of Hull. To help finance her degree, she did 12-hour night shifts at a centre for vulnerable families.
‘I think that for a lot of women, you forget that you have many skills if all you’ve done for years is look after other people,’ Young says. Today, she has come full circle, working as a learning support advisor at the college she attended ten years ago. ‘Now, I can help other women who were in my position.’
Of the 1.74 million adults studying at further education institutions in the UK, 61% are women. The UK’s Sixth Form and specialist college system offers the sort of technical and applied qualifications that can lead straight to vocation, or serve as a foundation for accessing university. Although colleges are technically open to everyone onwards of 14, it might surprise you to learn that the average college student is 28 years old, suggesting that that there is a majority-female enclave within the college student population who, like Young, have found reason to re-enter school at a slightly older age.
In common with Young, an untold number of women will have experienced challenges in their pursuit of further learning, brought on by personal and social circumstances ranging from childcare, through to poverty and abuse. A briefing paper presented to the House of Commons in March contains findings that imply women are more likely to have difficulty financing their education than men. The gender pay gap for full-time workers in the country is 7.4%, and women have a higher propensity to find work in lower-paying sectors such as retail and social care. With the pandemic, women’s economic circumstances have worsened: 57% of workers in sectors shut down by Covid-19 were women (compared to a workforce average of 48%), with mothers being 1.5 times more likely than fathers to lose their jobs due to lack of childcare support.
To date, there are no statistics that comprehensively capture the socioeconomic vulnerabilities of disadvantaged women returning to school in Britain. This is compounded by a scarcity of research into the needs of women participating in further education, especially for those who felt disenfranchised from the statutory school system. Recalling her initial trepidation about going to college, Young says: ‘I always thought I was too thick. I think that a lot of the focus from the teachers was on the ones that were really bright… and could bring in good grades for the school.’
According to surveys conducted by the Learning and Work Institute, an independent policy and research organisation dedicated to lifelong learning and employment, women are consistently more likely than men to cite personal development – such as ‘improving self-confidence’ – and a desire to be recognised for academic qualifications, as the top two factors for going back to school, as opposed to other motivators such as ‘getting a job’ or it being an ‘employer requirement.’ For women, education is a deeply intimate thing, tied inextricably to self-worth.
Dr. Fiona Aldridge, who is Director of Policy and Research at the Institute, says that adult education is an excellent way to gently re-introduce women to learning in a communal setting. ‘For lots of women, one of the most commonly reported benefits of adult learning is building confidence,’ she explains. ‘If you didn’t do well in your initial education, if you’re further away from the labour market, then you might not feel like school is for you.’ Engaging with these women, says Dr. Aldridge, empowers them to believe that they have the agency to create a different life for themselves.
She also emphasises the importance of further learning in improving mental health, by promoting social cohesion and the opportunity for them to connect with other people of varying cultural backgrounds. ‘And for mothers, there’s really powerful evidence that their learning has a positive impact on their children’s GCSE level attainment and success at school. It’s about social mobility at an intergenerational level, not just the mother’s.’
And yet, for something so essential to women, and especially to the women escaping extreme hardship, the UK’s routes back to school are fraught with invisible barriers. Women make up 56% of adults specifying cost as an obstacle to learning. Funding cuts to further education institutions, which tend to cater to economically deprived students, are making it less and less affordable for women to stay in school. Government spending on adult education peaked at £4.3 billion in 2002, but has dropped drastically by around 66% since then, creating huge resource challenges for colleges.
For some women, their precarious immigration status also has an adverse impact on their ability to participate in further education. Jessie, 49, and Angela, 28, are both survivors of trafficking from Kenya and Cameroon respectively. Both asked to be given pseudonyms to avoid being identified by their exploiters.
While awaiting a decision on her asylum application from 2018 until April this year, Jessie received a weekly state allowance of just £39.65 and was barred from working, which meant she could not save up.
She had a positive experience attending the first year of a course in health and social care at a college in West London, but progression to the next level has taken a backseat now that she has the right to remain in the UK. She feels that in order to make ends meet, she will have to seek out an apprenticeship, which will leave her with less time for study. ‘I was happy to interact with other students, even though they were very, very young,’ she remembers. ‘I stopped going to school at 13, so I was very stressed at first about learning, and passing exams. But from what I’ve seen in this country, if you don’t have an education, you don’t have anything.’
On the other hand, Angela had applied to three different universities in the UK since 2018, and succeeded every time, but was unable to pay the fees to attend. A social worker finally placed her at a summer school for survivors of trafficking in July this year. ‘I told her that I don’t want to wake up in the morning anymore and do nothing,’ she says. ‘I will make any sacrifice to go to school.’
Finding adequate childcare while they attend school is also a predominant concern for many women. In a 2019 study carried out by the Learning and Work Institute, women made up 77% of adult education participants stating that childcare and other caring responsibilities stymied their learning.
For a long time, women’s childcare needs could be reconciled with their studies due to generous funding for what is known as the Sure Start scheme, which was created in 1998. This programme aims to improve early childhood development in the most disadvantaged areas. Sure Start children’s centres offer a combination of childcare, education, and training and employment support for parents.
In 2010, before the Conservative government was elected to power in the UK, Sure Start received £1.8 billion a year, or a third of overall spending on early childhood development. Since then, the imposition of austerity cuts has seen the closure of up to 1,000 children’s centres, with the most deprived areas being the worst affected by the reduction in services. This denies low-income women a good option for further learning, without having to worry about childcare.
Since 1996, Christina Christofi has taught English to predominantly migrant women at the Baytree Centre, a social inclusion charity for women and girls located in Brixton – a South London borough with unemployment and poverty rates above the city average. ‘Under Sure Start, we used to have a crèche downstairs, so the women could leave their children there while we taught them English,’ she says. ‘But that funding’s gone now.’
Still, Christofi believes that community-based settings structured around women’s lifestyles and needs have helped boost the appeal of adult learning. Today, Baytree’s English for Speakers of Other Languages classes, headed by Christofi, currently has 167 students. Christofi feels that small charities like Baytree have succeeded in cultivating a trustworthy reputation that has drawn thousands of women over the years. ‘It’s very much word-of-mouth,’ she says. ‘There’s this sense that Baytree is their family. Some of our students are intergenerational — they come, and then their daughters, too.’
Dr. Gabriella Conti, a research fellow at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, has studied extensively the health effects of Sure Start on young children in poorer neighbourhoods. ‘There’s an absence of data in the UK demonstrating the link between investment in early childhood education and benefits to mothers’ education,’ she says. However, she points towards an early education experiment called The Abecedarian Project that launched in 1971 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The project collected substantial evidence on positive maternal outcomes, when children born into extreme poverty were given five years of free and high-quality educational childcare.
80% of the mothers whose children were part of the project ended up obtaining post-secondary school education by the time their children were 15. Conversely, for children in a control group who were given supportive family social services and low-cost or free primary health care, but not intensive and specialised early education, only 28% of their mothers acquired post-secondary school qualifications.
In the meantime, Young wants to continue being a proponent for adult education. She has begun postgraduate training as a teacher, and hopes to use her experience to encourage at-risk women to pick up their education where they left off. She has also tried to ‘pay it forward’ by raising money to start a £3,000 bursary for the Helena Kennedy Foundation, a national charity for disadvantaged students in further education.
‘College should be for everybody,’ she says. ‘It makes me mad that women think if you’ve had a bad life, you can’t go back to education. You just need to realise there are so many different paths, and ultimately education gives you freedom, choice and independence.’
This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists.