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Developing a Pathway for Voluntary Sector Learners

Woman using laptopThis blog was written by Kay Logan who is a part time PhD student affiliated to the Centre for Voluntary Sector Leadership, exploring the feasibility of developing a pathway for learners from the voluntary sector – from the OU’s informal learning to the formal curriculum. Funded by SCiLAB (Centre for Pedagogical Research and Innovation Business and Law), in this blog Kay explains what some of the opportunities might be for the development of CVSL’s learning offer and the further development of partnerships between academics and practitioners. CVSL will be exploring these opportunities further during 2020-21.

The Centre for Voluntary Sector Leadership had three key aims in this small study; we wanted to understand more about learners that come to the OU from the voluntary sector and how we were meeting their needs.  Secondly, we wanted to understand the market further to understand how CVSL might develop its offer further for voluntary sector learners. Finally, we wanted to identify how CVSL might develop and promote a learning pathway, supporting learners to progress from informal learning into accredited learning and the mainstream curriculum.

Since 2017/18, voluntary sector organisations have increased expenditure on OU apprenticeship programmes and at the same time there has been a decline in spending on OU core programmes.  This is likely to be because of changes in the way that apprenticeship programmes are being funded by the voluntary sector with support from the UK government.  Whilst we are clearer on spending by voluntary sector organisations, we are less clear about how individuals from the voluntary sector are accessing our programmes, but anecdotally, teaching colleagues often meet students working in the sector on both undergraduate and postgraduate programmes.  We ensure that modules include case examples from the voluntary sector and explore key issues that are relevant to the sector and its partners, such as voluntary sector delivery of public services in a new module on the management of public services.

CVSL offers provides open access informal learning, offering two online courses via the OpenLearn platform: Developing Leadership Practice in the Voluntary Sector and Collaborative Leadership in Voluntary Sector Organisations.  The courses are aimed at voluntary sector practitioners seeking to develop their leadership practice.  They are invited to share their learning and practitioner experiences in discussion forums, and learners report that the way they understand and practice leadership changes (positively) over the duration of the courses.  Over the last two years and as part of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) process, CVSL has been offering leadership learning clubs to organisations and to individuals that use the online course materials as a basis for collective learning and reflection.    Over 19,000 people have visited Developing Leadership Practice in the Voluntary Sector, and since January 2020, 19,500 visits have been made by over 13,000 visitors to both courses.  Participants in Learning Clubs tell us that they benefit from hearing directly from academic researchers and from the context of peer-to-peer challenge and support that provides space for them to ‘rehearse’ the ideas they encounter in the online course.  Additionally, CVSL’s portal on OpenLearn links learners to the wealth of courses available on this platform Free leadership courses for the voluntary sector - OpenLearn - Open University, but we are aware that there is much more to do to meet the professional development needs of the sector.

The NCVO Almanac 2020 and NCVO Report into Planning for Tomorrow’s Workforce provides data and valuable insights for voluntary sector leaders and policy makers, describing growth (pre-COVID-19) in the sector of 17% since 2010 and that the sector accounts for 3% of the UK workforce (909, 088) and in addition, the majority of the workforce are employed by organisations with less than 50 employees.  Over a third of the voluntary sector workforce are involved in social work activities, followed by residential care, education, membership and human health.  There are identified workforce skills gaps that are highly valued (lobbying, government relations and the latest HR laws); conversely, roles with reported high skill levels are basic IT skills, organisational skills and people management skills.  The most challenging roles to recruit to are reported to be fundraising.  Some of the reported issues in smaller voluntary sector organisations relating to recruitment are associated with salary level, lack of funding for training and development and also for funding vacancy advertisements.  The impact is clear on the existing workforce; increased workload, increased time required to deliver work and a decreased ability to take on new work.

At the OU, we know that development is viewed by the voluntary sector as a potential way to counteract lower salaries and we know that the voluntary sector needs development to be based on meeting need and addressing skills gaps.  A proportion of workers come to the voluntary sector from elsewhere because of values-based roles found in the sector.  We spoke to the Chief Executive of a small voluntary sector organisation who told us that the workforce issues discussed in this blog are an accurate reflection of the issues faced.  Further, that during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is grass roots charities that are meeting the need caused by Covid and this is in a context where there are increasing levels of competition for funding that are claimed to be fuelled by the way that funding is awarded.  The CEO spoken to told us that small voluntary sector organisations cannot depend on one income stream alone, that there was a need around fundraising, frontline experience and partnership working.  Team nurturing and development is important and small voluntary sector organisations need to be able to stand up to scrutiny.  Returning to apprenticeship programmes, whilst these were valued, they had a sizeable impact on the rest of the team due to time away from the organisation. 

It is here that micro-credentials might be considered as a way to lessen the impact of learning that takes place away from the workplace, as micro-credentials are qualifications achieved via a shorter process of learning, allowing a more flexible approach that develops competencies and skills.  Therefore, we see micro-credentials as a potential way that CVSL can develop shorter credit-bearing courses that can feed into a future MSc pathway for learners from the voluntary sector – and bridge the gap between informal to formal learning.  Micro-credentials may also act as a basis for the development of partnerships between academic and practitioners that lead to further development of formal and informal learning around business, management and leadership learning.  However, there is much more work to do to understand how best to develop our learning offer in future years to meet the sector’s needs. 

CVSL will continue to reflect on how we can look to further develop the opportunities and challenges that have been highlighted in this blog. Please do email the CVSL team to share your reflections on this continuing work.

22nd September 2021

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