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Go-betweens champion learning

New research shows that learning brokers are playing a crucial role in the campaign to boost skills and widen participation in education and training by acting as go-betweens that link individuals with learning providers.

The terms 'learning broker' and 'brokerage' cover a wide range of roles and activities, including paid professionals involved in advice and guidance (such as Job Centre staff), national organisations such as the University for Industry (learndirect), union learning representatives, librarians, health visitors, learning champions in communities, football coaches and unpaid volunteers.

Two new reports from the Learning and Skills Development Agency's (LSDA) research centre published today present the findings of a major piece of research to discover how widespread learning brokerage is and how it operates, what learning brokers do and the barriers that prevent brokerage working effectively. Learning brokerage: building bridges between learners and providers, prepared for LSDA by the Institute for Access Studies at Staffordshire University, identifies different forms of learning brokerage, how it can stimulate organisational change and the strategies that learning brokers use to engage non-traditional adult learners. Learning brokerage in the workplace, prepared by researchers at Leeds Metropolitan University and the University of Hull, looks specifically at the role of intermediaries, such as union learning representatives, within the workplace.

Examples of learning brokerage include:

  • Union learning reps in Essex encouraging bus drivers and depot staff to access learning opportunities in a learning centre located in the bus depot.
  • The Oxfordshire strategic partnership working with managers of care homes to reach low qualified care workers.
  • The Women's Institute who have 35 volunteers working with WI members, mainly in rural communities, setting up learning opportunities on demand.
  • The Coalfields Regeneration Trust in Merthyr Tydfill who run a project with the WEA to train lifelong learning advisers as mentors and information providers.

Main findings

* Learning brokerage is well-established and widespread. Typically, it is a process involving a range of individuals and agencies who all play different roles. These include not only union learning reps in the workplace and learning champions in communities, but also people working in more unusual contexts such as learning advisers in doctors surgeries and hairdressing salons. But, although the activity has existed for many years, the terms 'learning broker' and 'brokerage' are not widely recognised.

* Brokerage is often conducted through networks and organisations, rather than single individuals operating alone. Its value is that it "reaches parts others cannot". Typically, learning brokers operate at three levels: very informally - through suggestion and comment; more formally - providing advice; and strategically - working to change structures. The same person might operate at all three levels of brokerage, in both paid and unpaid roles.

* The role of learning brokers varies according to context, operating in four key domains: community, work, educational institutions and the voluntary sector. In a community setting, for instance, they are seen as "Pied Pipers who respond to communities at a grass roots level", working "bottom up" through close informal relationships. In the workplace, the process is more "top down" as brokers need to be able to understand the needs of the employer as well as the employee.

* Workplace brokers can be grouped into four types: learning advisers, management coordinators, independent guidance advisers or training intermediaries. Brokerage in the workplace is most successful where employee relations are good and employees have a sense of ownership over the opportunities offered.

Issues raised

* Narrow views about learning make brokerage networks and partnerships difficult and prevent them from working flexibly. Assumptions amongst some policy makers and funders that 'learning' equals 'formal accredited learning' can act as a barrier by labelling people as 'non learners'. Much informal learning carried out within the voluntary and community sector is a by-product of efforts to address particular problems and issues - but this is often not recognised

* Lack of resources and reliance on short term funding only create a "parachute in-parachute out" factor which alienates communities. Often inadvertently, people taking on a learning broker role in marginalised communities were overburdened with impossible mental, physical and emotional demands and felt they were expected to work in a vacuum with few resources or support.

* Many people - potential targets for learning brokers - are actively marginalised by factors such as poverty, unemployment or racism, rather than simply being passively 'hard to reach'. In these contexts, brokerage needs to be culturally sensitive and appropriate to individual life experiences.

* Where learning brokerage is linked to educational institutions, competition and survival imperatives made brokerage networks and partnerships difficult and hierarchical relationships prevented them from working flexibly. Educational institutions were sometimes perceived as 'operating like factories' with staff viewing non-traditional learners as problems and experiencing difficulties working across boundaries.

Sue Taylor, research manager at LSDA, says: "Our research has revealed that brokerage is established and widespread - we have only uncovered the tip of the iceberg. But there is no single, universal understanding of the term learning broker; it covers a vast range of different roles, voluntary as well as paid. It is clear that learning brokers play an important role in widening adult participation in learning and this needs better recognition."

Liz Thomas, researcher from the Institute of Access Studies at Staffordshire University, says: "Learning brokerage is an exciting and innovative concept and practice which challenges the convention of only seeking to change learners to fit into a traditional and un-reformed education system. Instead it emphasises working in both directions, and seeking to bring about institutional understanding and change to meet the needs of marginalised learners".

Key factors, viewed as essential to the development of learning brokerage nationally in all contexts, are: recognising and disseminating good practice; adequate and systematic funding; improved opportunities to work across different sectors; and consultation with potential users.

In addition, factors that are important for the development of brokerage in the workplace are: strengthening the role of union learning representatives; developing the 'learning adviser' type of brokerage in small and medium-sized enterprises; developing training programmes for prospective workplace brokers; and consultation with potential users.

The two reports are Learning brokerage: building bridges between learners and providers by Liz Thomas et al from the Institute for Access Studies at Staffordshire University and Learning brokerage in the workplace: some preliminary reflections by Denise Thursfield, John Hamblett and Rick Holden, from the Human Resource Development Unit, Leeds Metropolitan University and the Business School,
University of Hull.

The first report includes a directory of 80 examples of learning brokerage. It also has developed a brokerage process framework to chart the activities of learning brokerage - many of which involve multiple networks. Following in-depth case studies of nine schemes, the research team is now conducting action research with four organisations to test a model for effective learning brokerage. Further reports will be published in 2005.

Copies of both reports are available from: Information Services, LSDA, Regent Arcade House, 19-25 Argyll Street, London W1F 7LS and via the LSDA website.

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