Melloney Witter upskilled from retail assistant to working as a secondary school teaching assistant after her maternity leave. “While I was maternity leave it was a case of…do I want to be stuck in retail?” she says. She decided to take an online course in to become a teaching assistant. It allowed her to be at home while her children were young but to accomplish something. She says: “It feels good because, yes, I’ve accomplished something. It’s not just something that I’m proud of, it something that my kids are proud of too.”
Melloney did her course through Stonebridge Associated Colleges, a distance education college specialising in home study courses.
It was set up in 1995 and initially focused on complementary therapies such as reflexology and aromatherapy. Gradually, it has moved into more mainstream areas such as teaching [it offers courses for teaching assistants and further education assessors], nutrition and beauty. It now offers over 600 courses, ranging from business administration to child behaviour. Three quarters of its students are female as it enables them to study from home and get career-based qualifications.
It has colleges in Bude in Cornwall and Birmingham [where its digital marketing team is based] and training facilities in Brentwood [which specialises in beauty courses] and Bromley, but most of the education it offers is remotely delivered. All theoretical learning is done remotely while follow-on practical training at specific locations – which offers additional qualifications – is optional. This means that it can be very flexible as people can choose when they study for home-based learning and can study part time. Tutors are available to mark work seven days a week – the college has around 120 tutors who work on an associate basis, being paid according to the assignments they mark, and education or sector experts write all the courses. The colleges are fully accredited by various awarding bodies including: CACHE, Active IQ and NCFE. On completion of the courses students receive a certificate from the awarding body confirming that the course is independently accredited at the level of learning that they have chosen to study.
All students have access to a personal tutor who deals with their queries as well as a nominated administration assistant. There are online forums and groups where students can interact. They can also speak to their tutors on the phone rather than just via email.
Wayne Janse van Rensburg, CEO of Stonebridge, says the foot health course is one of the most popular and has been running for around 15 years. Some 90% of learners on that course are women, many of whom have children who have recently flown the nest and are looking for extra income.
He adds that the college is expanding to Yorkshire where it will specialise in hairdressing. Van Rensburg says the areas which are expanding most quickly are hairdressing, fitness and health. Stonebridge is also moving into construction. “We are constantly adding more and more courses,” he says. One factor in the expansion is the government’s 24+ Advanced Learning Loans which offer financial loans for people over the age of 24 to do Further Education courses. As with university loans, the money is only paid back once students are earning over £21,000 a year.
Another example of Stonebridge’s expansion policy is that its HQ is moving into a new facility in Bude where it is building its own private FE college.This will mainly cater to the hospitality industry in the area through a variety of hospitality apprenticeships. It is also taking on a lot of new staff in the Bude area and plans to have 300 plus staff by 2016. The HQ will be fed by the satellite centres around the country which will specialise in different types of training. “We have a clear goal: to be the largest privately funded distance college,” says van Rensburg.
There have been some negative comments from students on the internet, alongside many positive ones, but van Rensburg says that with over 70,000 learners a year there are bound to be some complaints and that on independent review sites satisfaction levels are high.
He is very optimistic about the future for online learning. “Everyone now has 3G. In January we had more traffic to the site from mobiles than desktop computers. It’s a phenomenal shift,” he says. “People are doing everything on the go. A barrier to online learning used to be access to the internet, but that barrier is now gone and as internet speed is getting better and better online learning will be more and more accessible. The internet is here to stay. People will be less inclined to sit in a classroom for six to nine months when they can study on the move.”