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HEFCE appointed SQW in September 2009 to undertake a summative evaluation of the Lifelong Learning Network (LLN) programme. The key objective was to measure the overall success of the LLN programme in relation to its key aim to improve ‘the coherence, clarity and certainty of progression opportunities for vocational learners into and through higher education’. SQW was also asked to consider any wider impacts from the programme and its longer-term sustainability.

SQW determined that the LLN programme has achieved well against its objectives. The programme led to the development of new curricula, often involving employers. Information, advice and guidance for learners on vocational programmes has improved and there are several thousand progression agreements in place. The programme has also made an important contribution to other policy areas such as employer engagement and the development of the new 14-19 qualifications.

HEFCE did identify sustainability as a critical issue when considering the longer-term impact of the LLN programme. SQW has discovered many instances of cultural change across institutions, and within a number of LLNs partner institutions have committed to continue to fund posts and activities borne out of the networks.

Ultimately this programme was designed specifically to encourage learners on vocational courses to enter HE. In their monitoring returns, LLNs reported on over 8,500 signed and implemented progression agreements and estimated that over 19,500 learners were expected to progress via these routes, with potential for nearly 55,000 learners to benefit over time.

Noting that the context of HE funding has shifted considerably since the LLN programme was instigated, SQW recommends that institutions, both those who took part in the programme and those who did not, should seek to build upon and embed the wealth of good practice developed through the networks.