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Going Back to School as an Adult

Barry Cocklin

A case study of adults back at ordinary schools shows how successful it can be. The small adaptations the school can make to enhance that success are noted.

Journal issue: 

Going Back to School as an Adult

Barry Cocklin

Charles Sturt UniversityRiverina


POLITICIANS, faced with increasing unemployment, have suggested that schools should be ‘opened up’ for the re-entry of adult students. Accepting adult students has also been heralded as a means of maintaining school rolls and so maximising the use of school sites. Cynics will suggest that here we see political expediency trying to disguise unemployment, and school Principals threatened with falling salaries (caused by falling rolls) looking for a quick fix.

The reality, whether advocates or cynics are right, is that increasing numbers of adults are looking at school re-entry as an option. Why do they choose school rather than other options? How have adult students found the return to school? What are the implications of this development for adult students, school-aged pupils, teachers, and schools?

To look into these questions I observed and talked with the 38 adult students in one New Zealand secondary school. I also asked them to compile diary accounts of their day-to-day experiences and so it became possible to gain insight into the complex and dynamic interplay of events which characterise the life of an adult student during a year at school.

First, however, the issues of why school? and why return? These questions are particularly appropriate in Australia where re-entry to secondary school is often dismissed as unlikely since there are similar courses at Technical and Further Education (TAFE) colleges.

Why school?

Advertising helps

As well as going back to ordinary school two other A alternatives were available for adults seeking the same subjects, courses, and qualifications, namely ‘Evening Classes’ (at the secondary school) and Community College. Indeed, several of these adults had experienced both. Yet, all saw returning to school, either part-time or full-time, as the preferred option. The reasons were two-fold, and to some extent interrelated.

First, time, and its corollary, convenience. For the adult students, a return to school meant qualifications in a shorter period of time than through the alternatives. For instance, a four subject University Entrance (UE) could be completed in one year full-time at school but a minimum of two at Evening School. Similarly, returning to school was more convenient in that classes were 9-3, the same as, in some cases, their own school-aged children.

The second group of reasons were more difficult to define, being related to the context and clientele of the school. The adult students got greater satisfaction from the mixing-of-ages at school than from the adults-only alternatives; ‘fun’, ‘new ideas’, ‘enthusiasm of youth’, ‘greater variety of ideas’, were mentioned. Certainly, there was a total rejection (by adult students, teachers, and school-aged pupils) of any suggestion for adult-only classes. Teachers being more available at school (than at either evening classes or Community Colleges) was mentioned and more opportunity for discussing work with staff, students, and school-aged pupils.

The overall support for returning to school, rather than the alternatives, was very strong and the participants considered this the best option. Yet awareness of this option was not widespread within the community. This school relied primarily upon word-of-mouth, but another, close by, advertised vigorously using mail, the media, and an Open Day for adult students. This resulted in considerable community awareness of the programme.

Why return?

Multiple reasons, multiple outcomes

I found complex and multifaceted justifications, highly individualised. Each student had their own cultural and home background, their own expectations, present home situation, employment, financial situation, and social activities. They also had predispositions and expectations from their prior experience of school. While for all students the decision to return represented somewhat of a hurdle to overcome, the longer the period since school and the more negative they felt about their schooling, the longer the decision-making processes took. F.30 provides a typical example. She wrote:

a.m. My first day back at school after an absence of 16 years. My initial terror gave way to feelings of enthusiasm and ‘why did I leave it so long?’ I could have done this three years ago had I found the courage and a little more motivation. I am delighted with my teachers, feel sure they will keep me interested and help me when I need it.

Reasons for returning start with a desire for further learning and the pursuit of credentials, often to enable a change of occupation. These adult students sought School Certificate (SC) and University Entrance (UE), but most commonly as an initial step towards further study and credentials.

Many of the adult students gave at least equal prominence, if not more so, to other, personal, outcomes:

I don’t think UE was the main issue – I think the most important thing this year was deciding what I wanted to do. (F.16)

These personal goals were seen by some students as more important and of more benefit than credential-based goals:

It got me away from the ‘suburban neuroses’ thing. It’s been really, really good as far as the family is concerned… now, they’ve got that bit of independence and I don’t tend to fuss over them. …. I’m more self-assured. …. I feel I can go out and get a job, I know I’m capable of doing something if I want to do it. So, it’s given me confidence. Yeah – its been good – even if I didn’t get UE, it’s been really worthwhile. (F.30)

Occupational mobility, status mobility and personal factors were therefore of at least equal importance.

Integration effects

Emphasise the familiar, encourage integration

The adult students arrived at school with certain predispositions based upon their earlier experiences at school.

…school never changes – it’s always the same. I roughly knew what to expect, so, physically, it’s not a lot different really. (M.17)

One aspect assisted their integration into the school – this was a school where senior pupils did not wear uniform. In Australia school uniform is almost an ‘institution’ from primary levels on; in New Zealand very few secondary schools insist on 16- and 17-year-olds wearing uniform. These adult students noted that similarity of dress greatly assisted them in feeling comfortable and part of the school culture. Some of them said that had there been uniform -both for the pupils and certainly for adult students – they would not have returned to school.

Part of the class, but different

The processes of integration were also influenced by the Dean and classroom teachers. The Dean sought to place adult students in senior classes reflecting a general perception among the staff that pupils at this level were most similar to adult students. In the classroom the teachers gave emphasis to appropriate roles, that of teacher/student rather than adult/adult. The adult students responded by adopting strategies to comply:

…for instance, in Economics, it’s far easier for me to get along with everybody – teacher and pupils – by acting more as a pupil – more as a kid, than as an adult. . I just act like they do. (M.15)

In both interviews and casual conversation the adult students always referred to their teachers by title and surname, even in instances where the student and teacher had social contacts outside the school. Even the teachers commented on this, it was formal, and they had not expected it from adult students, particularly out of class. The adult students, however, saw it as a legitimate component of student/teacher relationships:

I don’t like to get too friendly with the teachers because you feel then that you can’t have a pupil/teacher relationship. . if you get too friendly with them, they feel stink if they have to criticise you – when your work’s not up to standard or you’re doing something wrong. That’s important, I think, because you’ve got to know if you’re doing the right thing. (Ell)

However, this is not to suggest that the role of pupil was accepted without qualification or, indeed, some resistance:

Also, she [TF.11] treated us like kids – me and M.5. …. She was worse with M.5 – she sort of told him off, just to get a laugh from the class. . She would sort of tell him off then look at the class for their approval. . Some of the class would sort of snigger – most of them, though, didn’t pay it any attention. But, I felt, she was always trying to bring us down – make us out to be pupils, rather than adult students. (F.16)

In such situations, then, the adult students are the same as their school-aged peers. They are idiosyncratic, and respond as individuals, a point of which the majority of teachers are well aware. However, there were sufficient instances to suggest that greater recognition should be given to the independence and maturity of the adult students. While they appreciate being treated in similar ways to the pupils, being in any manner demeaned will be resisted. One adult categorically rejected, and drew to the teachers attention, incidents of sexism and anti-Gay ‘jokes’.

Career counselling, personal counselling

A further area of concern is access to information and advice. Even at the point of enrolment, it was clearly evident that few of the adult students had any great knowledge of subject content, the relationship of content to career paths, or even the available career options:

Found on enrolment one has to be knowledgeable on subjects available for University Entrance. Information not forthcoming until one persisted in requesting advice. (F.24)

Accordingly, schools must provide such information and the appropriate career advice, rather than assume access or prior knowledge. However, there is a further form of information many of the adult students felt was required. This can be broadly categorised as counselling -T found I was someone for them to talk to’ – and indeed most commented on this. Although such tasks were part of the Dean’s job, she reported that while I was there she spent less time talking with the adult students. The adult students, like the school-age pupils, need someone else to talk with about career and personal issues.

Getting information through

Adult students often found themselves unaware of school-based events, including sports visits, timetable changes, meetings, cultural events, and so on. Generally, this came about because they were not required to attend school assemblies, and some said they were part-time.

Also many of the teachers said they did not know enough about the adult students, including career intentions, difficulties being experienced, prior knowledge, the external commitments (and a variety of other information) that might have been useful. What appeared to be lacking, was an effective means of disseminating and exchanging relevant information.

Subject options and class levels

There was some lack of awareness among staff about various requirements, particularly for entry to university. Furthermore, some adult students were directed towards the humanities, in contradiction to their chosen career paths. For instance, F.10 seeking entry to nursing studies was enrolled in English, history and geography, and only one science, biology.

Some teachers noted that certain adult students experienced difficulties in mathematics and physical sciences due to a lack of background. However F.11, who had achieved high levels of examination success (marks in the 70’s and 80’s in school examinations) at Fifth Form level was placed in the Fifth Form again. This was said to be because she had been out of formal schooling for some time, yet F.23 who had been a pupil the previous year was enrolled at sixth Form level from which she achieved only 23 percent in Mathematics and 5 percent in English in University Entrance.

In short, an assessment of the adult student should occur, examining experiences, abilities, and proposed career directions. The practice of assuming that certain curriculum areas and levels are more ‘appropriate’ for adult students is not good enough. Greater access to a variety of knowledge, and to career paths is imperative.

Time to do a good job

The teaching and curriculum decisions by teachers for these adult students were entirely based upon prior experience rather than on particular knowledge or a theoretical basis. The training of the teachers had not involved any mention of adult students. Indeed, some staff were unaware until their first class that adult students were enrolled in the school. The adult students disliked being treated as kids. I did not observe teachers in class but it seems sensible that teacher education should incorporate awareness of what adult students need and their perceptions of how they are treated.

One aspect of considerable concern to teachers, however, was clearly evident within the research. This was the point that adult students were more demanding on time than their school-aged peers. At both the classroom teacher and Dean level, all commented upon the considerable time they spent out of class talking with, and assisting, the adult students, often to the extent of taking up entire lunch periods, after school, and non-contact times. In particular, it would be appropriate that the Dean, with overall responsibility for adult students, should be readily available; in this school she had a full teaching load, and other commitments.

Age and status

The adult students established their own subculture; they interacted and negotiated with others to establish a set of clearly different roles, rights, obligations, intentions and actions. Generalised guidelines from the Department of Education said that an adult student was one ‘aged 18 years or over, with at least one full year of outside school experience’. However the interpretation is the responsibility of the particular school, and the school I was at had admitted a 16-year-old only a few weeks after leaving. This brought problems. A majority of the adult students expressed considerable criticism of M.16 being admitted. Along with problems about his age, he chain smoked, stubbed cigarettes on the arms of the sofa, rode his motorbike in the Commonroom, and swore. While his behaviour got better during the year, his peers, teachers, and the Dean continued to refer to M.16 as ‘not a true adult student’. He maintained, sometimes with particular emphasis, his claim to adult student status.

On the other hand, M.6 (aged 19) was regarded by staff and students as an adult student, yet reported feeling ‘more at home’ among the pupils with whom he also associated during out-of-class time. Becoming an adult student is not merely being given the status, but requires a process of self-identification.

Attendance: flexible, inflexible?

Perhaps it was the issue of attendance which most clearly demonstrated that the adult student was a person with a different status and subject to different expectations, treatments, rules, and regulations. As one teacher commented:

Most of the pupils at my fifth form level realise there are certain people around the school, who are there under special circumstances and aren’t subject to the same forms of discipline or the same requirements of attendance. It’s not really me that has to accept it – it’s the rest of the class – and they seem to accept it very well. (TM.16)

This was rationalised by the staff on the basis of the external commitments – family, job, home – held by the adult student and not the pupils. However, it must be noted that this was teacher dependant, and teachers were actually bending the law about external examination attendance requirements. For the adult students, this freedom from attendance regulations was important:

You haven’t got the rules to get at you like when you were a pupil. You don’t have to come if you don’t want to. You only let yourself down if you don’t come. You don’t get teachers on your back – the kids do – they get nagged to go to class, you just do what you want to do. Put it this way, I wouldn’t have come back if we’d had the same rules as the kids do. (M.5)

The outcome of this freedom was many different attendance patterns: three adults maintained almost regular attendance, others were absent for as much as half the time. Similarly, a range of reasons were given for absences, including family or work commitments, not having completed assignments, ‘couldn’t be bothered going’, holidays, watching television Soaps, weather, and many others. Each adult student determined for him or herself an acceptable-level-of-attendance which was their compromise between their ongoing lives and commitments and their pursuit of both credential and personal goals. In short, adult students did not see school as the central component of their lives:

It’s important that study is only part of my life and not the whole of it. (F.32)

I would recommend this flexibility and self regulation to all schools with adult pupils.


While the adult students recognised the exigencies of timetabling, and the occasional need for change, a regularity of times becomes very important to them and allows them to schedule their commitments more effectively. There were instances where timetable changes were not communicated to the adult students, or where they could not reschedule their commitments. The result was absences from class. Although they vented their ire over such instances, they were lucky that there was at least an overall continuity and regularity.

However, the school proposed to implement a rotating six-day week timetable in the following year. This change was strongly resisted by the Dean who felt benefits for senior staff were outweighed by the disadvantage to adult students (and indeed school-aged pupils). Adult students need to plan ahead for family, work, and other commitments. A school with adult students must maintain timetable continuity and regularity.

Financial assistance

Staff and pupils were fully aware that these adult students had a variety of external commitments which brought about attendance problems. Often their financial situation meant they had to undertake part-time work in order to support themselves at school. The need varied, depending upon age and marital status. Some had given up the Unemployment Benefit to return, others had forsaken income sources, family income was reduced, and for some the feeling of independence was a factor in deciding to drop out.

Although full financial support for adult students had been advocated in New Zealand none had been forthcoming. The only finance, available only to those with no other source of support, was $6 per week for those aged 18 to 20, increasing to $27 per week above 20. (This, in 1993, has been considerable increased, about equal to the dole.)

Many of the adult students felt that better financial support was justified. For some the alternative to school was to remain on the Unemployment Benefit and be a greater burden to the State. All of them were seeking to improve their credentials, and therefore employment prospects, in much the same way as students at university. They suggested that some form of financial assistance, even if progress-dependant, would be of benefit. Citing M.16 as an example, however, they did suggest that financial support required definite age limits.

A Commonroom

Classroom interaction with ordinary pupils was considered important and beneficial. However, outside classes there was little integration. An adults-only commonroom was part of the reason, but considered essential.

You need to get away with your own friends – people of your own age group. Adult students, really, are on a different level to the pupils. They have experienced what it’s like outside school and they have conversations about things – like, even about the teachers – which I don’t think the pupils would understand – they might take the wrong meaning from some of the things said about the teachers. So, no – they shouldn’t share the same Commonroom. (M.15)

This room not only provided a ‘back room’ for adult/adult interaction, but also a place to do homework – particularly useful for those with families where homework facilities were limited or restricted to late at night. The usefulness of this adults-only commonroom was illustrated when I compared the situation at another school where the Commonroom was shared between adult students and senior pupils. The majority of the adults said ‘I never went there’. Noise and lack of privacy were the reasons.


Related to their financial circumstances, as an additional expense to some, was child care. Some schools in New Zealand possess creches, but not the school I was studying. A creche not only opens up wider access to the school for adult students but is a useful learning resource for school-aged pupils. This was confirmed at a school with a creche which I visited briefly. There the creche was cited as a major factor in allowing adult students to return to school. Indeed, at both schools, staff and adult students strongly supported the notion that a creche should be available for both main reasons.

Full consideration should be given to establishing an integrated child-care facility as part of any secondary school which will attract adult students.


Becoming an adult student is not merely a matter of turning up and being put with school-aged pupils. While similarities exist between the two groups, adult students are different, and remain so. Policy and practice must recognise both their experiences and background.

What we need, if our countries are seriously committed to life-long learning and access to knowledge and career paths, are better programmes and situations for adult students to help them as they re-enter school.


DR BARRY COCKLIN is a senior lecturer in the School of Education, Charles Sturt University, Riverina, Box 588, Wagga Wagga, NSW, Australia 2650.

This paper, with recommendations more fully spelt out, was first presented to the 1991 conference of the Australian Association for Research in Education.

Cocklin, Barry (1991) Adult re-entry to secondary school: the experience and the implications. Melbourne: AARE.

The New Zealand adult students were questioned in 1984. Since then the financial support has increased considerably, for example (1993) a single 17-year-old can get NZ$109 per week if living away from home, someone over 25, $131. There are still means tests but also further supplements for dependent children, spouse, etc.

Further Reading

Advisory Council on Educational Planning (1974) Directions for Educational Development, Wellington: Government Printer.

Auckland Community Schools Working Committee (1977) Community Schools: The Auckland Experience, Auckland: Auckland Community Schools Working Committee. [N.L. Langston, Chairman]

Bradley, J. (1984) Adult Dimensions in Secondary Schools: Participation in Day Classes by Adult Students in New Zealand, Wellington: NCAE.

Bradley, J. (1984) The Adult Learning Experience in a Rural Secondary School, New Zealand journal of Adult Learning, Vol. 16, No. 2, pp. 122-125.

Cocklin, B. (1988) Back to School: An Observational Study of Adult Students at Secondary School. Unpublished Ph.D Thesis, Massey University.

Cocklin, B. (1989) Back to school: becoming an adult student, Delta, Vol. 42, pp. 87-94.

Cocklin, B. (1990) ‘All I ever done is gone to school’: diary of an adult student at secondary school, Australian journal of Adult and Community Education, Vol. 30, No. 2, pp. 92-99.

Cocklin, B. (1990) Adult students’ experiences at secondary school: a New Zealand study, Studies In The Education Of Adults, Vol. 22, No. 2, pp. 195-210.

Cocklin, B. (1990) A case study of an adult student’s response to a teacher’s gender agenda, Education Action, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 36-45.

Cocklin, B. (1991) Back to school: a model of the processes of becoming an adult student, British journal of Sociology of Education, Vol. 12, No. 1, pp. 3-21.

Hogan, H. and Hay, R. (1977) Student Interviews of a Sample of Mature Students who Withdrew from Classes in 1976: Hagley Research Project. Unpublished Paper, Hagley High School, Christchurch.

Kohia Teachers Centre (1979) Adult Students in the Day School: Occasional Publication No.3, Auckland: Kohia Teachers Centre.

Leggatt, I. (1975) Adults are continuing at school, Continuing Education in New Zealand, Vol. 7, No. 2, pp. 25-34.