Narrative report of the project GOAL closing conference
'Guidance and Counselling for low educated adults: from practice to policy' , Egmont Palace, Brussels on 17 and 18 January 2018.

Guest speakers

(Click on a name to view the presentation or go to the overview of speakers' presentation slides)

The presentations by guest speakers at the GOAL closing conference situated the project within the wider context and policy landscape, and in doing so demonstrated the potential reach and benefits of adult guidance.

Dirk Van Damme of the OECD spoke about the opportunities that come throughout the life course for individuals to overcome educational inequality and disadvantage. Adult education in itself is not the great equaliser, as those with greater skills and levels of education are more likely to participate. He made delegates think about the role that guidance can play at these junctures, and in particular of the importance of challenging low-educated adults to use their skills and to learn. It is important to bear in mind that people are not condemned; there is the possibility of upward education mobility.

We were reminded by Dana Bachmann (DG Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion) of the complexity and diversity of the low-educated population which, for example, includes many adults in employment. These adults too are in need of support and guidance to access opportunity, and support should be given regardless of employment status. Guidance has a critical role to play in matching people to opportunities and supporting people to access opportunities. A holistic approach, which builds on the synergies between other policy areas, could help to make results sustainable.

We learned from Dr Ellen Boeren of the University of Edinburgh that educational participation is also a complex issue not an individual matter, bringing in psychological, sociological and economic dimensions. Her discussion of the informational barriers faced by adults seeking to participate in education was particularly resonant to the GOAL project. She introduced delegates to her notion of the interplay between three cogs that turn together for participation – individuals, learning providers and countries.

Raimo Vuorinen of the Finnish Institute for Educational Research argued that adult guidance was the lubricant between these cogs. He also reminded delegates that adult guidance is changing; not only in the sense that ICT developments are changing the ways in which guidance is delivered and accessed, but also the ways in which we think about and talk about guidance, especially with a shift in discourse from supply to demand. This has an impact on how the benefits of guidance can be communicated and advocated: language should be used that promotes guidance as a solution to the challenges the EC faces in lifelong learning, mobility and employment. Above all, in cross-sectoral work, the focus should be the outcomes of guidance for the client, and not on the roles of the various collaborators.

Professor John Holford, University of Nottingham, argued that although a government commitment to breadth in education is required to improve participation this is not happening in adult education. Rather, over the past decades, political focus has narrowed in on education for employment’s sake; but this “vocationalism” is not increasing overall participation rates. Education should be for all, and all the benefits of education should be shared, but this cannot happen without stability in educational institutions, in structures and in systems. The equality that educational guidance encourages is also dependent on stability.

GOAL key findings and messages

The focal point of the event was the presentation of the key findings of the GOAL evaluation, including key messages for future programme and policy development on the topic of adult guidance. After an introduction to the GOAL project by project coordinator Nadia Reynders (Department of Education and Training, Flanders) the findings were presented by JD Carpentieri of the Institute of Education (University College London). The most important overall message related to the readiness not only of participants but also of programme and policy in order to obtain successful outcomes:

Clients in the GOAL project exhibited different levels of “readiness” to enter education or training. Some clients had relatively clear ideas of their educational goals and the steps they needed to take to achieve those goals. These clients demonstrated a big willingness of entering education and primarily needed information from their counsellors to navigate the adult education landscape. Other clients were less clear and/or less motivated, and needed more support and guidance, whereas a third category of clients faced particularly significant personal barriers, including poor psychological and/or physical health, substance abuse problems and social isolation. These clients were unlikely to achieve measurable educational or employment outcomes without making progress in a range of personal and psychological areas first. However, even for these vulnerable clients it was possible to make progress on “stepping stone” outcomes such as improved self-belief or self-esteem.

Programme readiness captures the degree to which the guidance service was able to address the client’s needs. GOAL clients benefitted from a counselling model in which digestible and actionable amounts of information were provided in different sessions; it was important to avoid overwhelming clients with too much information and too many challenges in one session. This was particularly important given GOAL’s emphasis on putting clients in the driver’s seat, i.e. ensuring that clients made their own decisions rather than just following the counsellor’s lead. Overall, the quality of counselling appeared to be high and clients demonstrated high levels of satisfaction. However, single-sessions counselling models were not as beneficial for most clients as multi-session models – even motivated clients typically required multiple sessions to get the appropriate level of information and support. Therefore, it is key for future programme development to match the counselling model to client needs, while considering available programme resources.

However, no matter how ready clients are to improve their lives, and no matter how ready counsellors are to help them find and navigate the most appropriate path towards doing so, it is generally impossible to overcome a lack of policy readiness. In the absence of the provision of free or heavily subsidised adult education courses, it is not possible for low-income individuals to act on their educational ambitions. However, where such provision does exist, it does appear that an educational guidance service, such as GOAL, is able to help significant numbers of low-educated clients to enrol on adult education courses.

Parallel sessions

After the presentation of the evaluation results, three parallel breakout sessions were held, which moved from the broad perspective of the cross-country findings and zoomed into the six individual GOAL projects, focusing on how programme implementation went for developers, counsellors and clients. In each session GOAL participants reported on their experiences, and video interviews with staff and clients in Flanders were played which illustrated the GOAL journey and highlighted the role adult guidance can play in sustaining motivation, building resilience, empowering and supporting low-educated adults to take steps towards education success.

Session 1 looked at the multiple and complex policy landscapes that provided the context for GOAL. Programme developers and staff from Iceland reported on the challenges they had faced in reaching out to a particularly vulnerable client group who had no history of coming to guidance services, despite their clear need. Questions were raised about whose responsibility it should be to pay for services for those adults who do not come to guidance through traditional referral route.

Examples from Flanders underscored that working with low educated adults, many of whom have complex lives, necessitates the involvement of a range of stakeholders and institutions, and that this process would be more effective and sustainable were there a structuralised system in place that formalised the existing informal arrangements, something that was not achieved in the life of the GOAL project.

The Slovenian experience offered an example of how cross-ministerial working might operate, in their case to unite ministries with a vested interest in raising adult skills levels. This ambition tapped into themes that had emerged earlier in the day’s discussions: delegates heard how the benefits to adults of educational participation extend into many areas: employment obviously, but also social integrations, civic participation, health and wellbeing and so forth. The GOAL evaluation report called attention to what have been referred to as “wicked policy problems”, that is, multi-domain problems that cannot be successfully addressed via only one policy area and/or programme intervention. What such problems require is joined-up policy work: GOAL offers an example of this at a local level.

Session 2 focused on the guidance services themselves. The video testimonies in this session highlighted that for some clients, especially clients in the younger age groups, the counsellor played a critical motivation role, supporting the client to persist in guidance and in education.

A counsellor from the Czech Republic explained how their service was developed from scratch, describing the training she had undertaken in order to be able to offer individual sessions to clients, and the cooperation that was developed with the local Labour Office. Programme developers from Slovenia reported that the capacity of their guidance service to offer multiple sessions was a cornerstone in sustaining motivation for their client target groups.

Icelandic colleagues explained how their service was targeted at adults who had not yet demonstrated any motivation to learning. Counsellors reported that it was unrealistic to focus on the outcome of educational enrolment, at least at this stage. Instead their focus was on working towards and encouraging clients to take the necessary and achievable steps towards progress, steps such as becoming punctual, and overcoming feelings of educational failure.

Session 3 turned to partnerships and networks. Project countries talked about the different approaches taken towards partner relationships. A video testimony from Flanders described how partnerships were sustained through frequent and often informal contacts. Relationships were characterised by friendly, mutual cooperation, spontaneous communication and frequent collaboration. In contrast, Slovenian programme developers described the work they had done in establishing formal regional networks there, where agreements were signed and roles and tasks were defined.

Both models met with successes and both brought challenges. Informal arrangements lack sustainability, especially where it is not clear where lines or responsibility lie. Formal networks can be damaged where levels of activity and commitment vary between partners. Examples from the Czech Republic, where there was very successful collaboration with the employment offices underscored two messages: 1) the key to effective partnership working is a joined focus on client outcomes not on organisational objectives; 2) the key to working successfully for good client outcomes is trust.