Benefit from night classes – How to…

Why is it important?

For the 450,000 or so adult education students who will sign up to study anything from tai chi to trumpet-playing this year, night school will provide the ideal forum for pursuing a hobby and meeting new people.

Yet according to educationalists, staff who are prepared to give up one evening a week to learn something new will also perform better at work – whatever their choice of subject.

Whether it is business law, cake-making or Indian head massage, research suggests that all study has beneficial knock-on effects for employers and should be actively encouraged by HR.

The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE) says that ‘lifelong learning’ is a concept that most enlightened employers pay lip service to, but which tends to stretch no further than internal training procedures. It urges more employers to rearrange shift patterns so that staff can attend night school, and argues that help with course fees should be standard.

Night school works

Fiona Aldridge, development officer at NIACE, says night school is far more work-related than people imagine.

“When anyone says ‘night school,’ people think of macramé or classical guitar, but more than a quarter of our students opt to learn about business studies, marketing, HR, law or IT,” she says.

“Our research tells us that the vast majority of students opt for these courses as a way of improving either their current work performance or their chances of a more satisfying career in the future, and as many as 45% say it has had a beneficial effect on how they do their job.

“If an employee who hasn’t been in a formal teaching environment since the age of 16 learns how to line-dance, they will inevitably feel more comfortable about learning something new at work,” she adds. “It doesn’t matter what people learn, as long as they are having fun and opening up their minds.”

Which course?

Although employer-funded night school classes may help shore up inadequate internal training resources, Aldridge believes that for the vast majority of employees, the choice of course should be made on “sheer enjoyment” rather than business grounds.

Learning a second language remains a firm favourite with many night school enthusiasts – either for holidays or for business purposes – but the usual choices of French, Spanish, German or Italian are expanding to reflect our more multi-cultural community.

Punjabi, Gujarati and Mandarin are starting to appear on evening class syllabuses, and are proving particularly popular among staff from firms with overseas interests and call centres.

Who pays?

Construction and engineering firm Mott MacDonald – which employs 11,000 staff in 140 countries – has a fund set aside for discretionary payments for external study, and it is into this pot that the firm dips at night school enrolment time.

Group board director Guy Leonard explains: “As far as we are concerned, all learning is relevant to the job. While we wouldn’t necessarily be keen to pay for a specialist basket-weaving course, languages, IT or even sports and relaxation would be useful to us an employer.

“The skills shortage in surveying and the built environment is such that we need to do all we can to keep our talent on board, and that includes helping them to grow as individuals.”

Fun first

Ford pioneered support for evening classes with its much-admired Employee Development and Assistance Programme (EDAP), which offers funds for any evening course as long as it is not work-related.

Other organisations, such as the 300-employee NIACE itself, leaves it up to the discretion of the employee as to whether they wish to brush up on their professional skills or take up something entirely new, such as tarot reading or watercolours. NIACE staff get an annual £250 grant, and are actively encouraged to sign up to an evening class every year.

If you only do 5 things

  1. Take evening classes for personal satisfaction as well as career advancement.
  2. Let your boss know your night school arrangements – you’ll be less likely to get asked to work late when you should be wrestling with Nietzche.
  3. Don’t take on an exam-related course if you are already overloaded at work.
  4. Think twice before inviting colleagues to join up six weeks in, you may regret it.
  5. Forget the hair shirt. Just because you failed physics GCSE, doesn’t mean you have to make amends now. Night school should be fun.

For more information

The Sign Up Now campaign – the sister campaign to Adult Learners Week – runs throughout September.

Basic Skills Agency

Campaign for Learning

BBC Learning

Adult and Community Learning Quality Support Programme

Expert’s view… the habit of learning

What if staff say they are too tired to study?

While there will always be some staff who will choose Coronation Street over Advanced Computing Skills, a more proactive approach to outside study by HR will help lift post-summer lethargy and encourage team members to sign up.

Paying all or part of the fees and ensuring that shift patterns take night school commitments into account are practical ways to boost study softer support comes from taking a keen interest in what is being studied and feeding back any relevant learning into the organisation.

Why is it worth encouraging reluctant learners?

There are particular benefits to an organisation in staff getting more accustomed to studying, and there are important implications for personal satisfaction, too.

An employee may go to night school to learn local history or creative writing, but the chances are that the experience they gain will cross over into their work life too without any extra effort.

By learning new skills and meeting new people, employees will often become more confident in the office and better able to pick up new information and different ways of working. It’s a win-win for both the professional and personal sides of an employee’s life, and employers should perhaps pay closer attention to it this autumn.

Should there be a qualification at the end of it?

For some adult learners, a piece of paper at the end of a course will always be an important goal, but this may not be relevant to an employer.

Learning for its own sake is always valuable, even if the outcome doesn’t appear on an individual’s CV.

Fiona Aldridge, development officer, NIACE

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