Adult literacy, numeracy and health care

Below is an opinion piece by WEA Director for Education Ann Walker from her blog at

Around 5 million adults in the UK lack functional literacy. According to the charity National Numeracy, almost 17 million people in the UK don’t have the numeracy skills necessary to reach the lowest grade at GCSE. Poor reading, writing and number skills are often discussed in the context of employability but recent research in the USA by Sharon K Long, Adele Shartzer and Mary Politi shows the impact of low levels of self-reported literacy and numeracy on obtaining and using private health insurance coverage. Their work, reported here, highlights how important these skills are in navigating health services and official systems, especially in a world that is increasingly reliant on independent online access by service users.

It also shows some of the risks that might arise from increasing privatisation of health services in the UK.

Health lit & num

The researchers found that navigating changes in the health care system is challenging for many people, especially for adults with limited literacy and numeracy. This should not come as a surprise, but there is a lot of action needed to bridge communication gaps between the public and health care providers.

Poverty is a strong contributor to health inequality but levels of  income and functional skills are linked.

The use of words and numbers can create barriers. Medical jargon can be unfamiliar and intimidating. Phlebotomy, oncology, obstetrics and other hospital department names are not obvious to the uninitiated. Leaflets in medication packs can be written in difficult language and many aspects of health and wellbeing, including dosage instructions for tablets, depend on literacy and numeracy.

Adding the US scenario of decision-making about health insurance is a further level of complexity, especially for people trying to balance difficult financial choices, but it is a level of expertise needed increasingly in many other everyday situations.

There is a strong need to invest in adult education that doesn’t stigmatise people who need to improve their functional skills and service providers also have a responsibility to make information as accessible and understandable as possible.

Joint working between health care providers, public service providers and adult educators might be part of a solution?

A Debate on Inequality

Below is an opinion piece by WEA volunteer Paul Tarpey, who discusses inequality in the run up to our event in Toxteth.

“Men are born equal but some are more equal than others.”

This quote from Orwell’s Animal Farm was more recognisable while I was growing up than the declaration of human rights it satirises. It does at least indicate how much debate was taking place about inequality in society. In recent years you are more likely to be berated for your naivety for even challenging this inequality.

Of course you would struggle to find anyone claiming that they craved a society with a widening gap between rich and poor. ‘It’s just Inevitable’ is the mantra of those who fuel it. I have never understood how this argument is given credence. Do we stop medical research because some level of illness will always exist?

Of course, there are people who don’t see it as inevitable at all but as desirable. And they seem to be pushing their agenda through with fewer and fewer of us questioning their motives.

The raw statistics about the rise in the gap between the richest 1% and the poorest in society are sickening. It has spiralled dramatically in the last 15 years and now seems to be held in place by a deliberate policy of penalising the increasing number of people below the poverty line.

There has always been a theory that market forces would maintain inequality but that living standards for all of us would rise to a level we could never otherwise achieve. However, there are many indications that it is not even an increase in wealth that creates a happy society. Economies with ‘relative equality’ have been shown in many surveys to display a much greater contentment with life than those with higher GDPs. This could indicate that we are happier even when poorer as long as we have fewer people to be envious of. Or maybe the much loved trickle down economy is a complete myth. Maybe financial security, job satisfaction, proper health care and mental well-being can only be provided by a society that places equality as its main objective.

Another argument you would constantly hear from those who championed inequality was that anyone could aspire to wealth and therefore it drove ambition and innovation. This notion surely has least credibility of all. The area you reside in it seems not only to reflect your current status but statistics show that it massively affects your chances of ever escaping a cycle of poverty and the health issues that follow. This is handed down from generation to generation with opportunities in life as related to the postcode you place on a form as it is on your skills and willingness to work. Maybe this can’t be challenged by the kind of equality that our liberal democracy claims it is achieving.

The idea that we are all moving forward despite the gap in equality has some superficial credibility. Technology has provided many people with access to a world that we would have associated with unimagined wealth when we were young. But this world exists alongside foodbanks. It exists alongside a level of poverty that few of us envisaged when the need to curb Trade Union powers was the major national topic.

Maybe technology has provided us with the ultimate ‘opium of the people’? Or is it just an indication of a generation unwilling to discuss how politics can shape their lives? Most online debates give the impression that not only are massive issues being trivialised but our methods of having impersonal, constructive discussions are disappearing. It certainly feels like there is a massive need for forums that are real, pro-active and based on genuine needs. Where will these platforms emerge though in a society that is losing many of its natural social and workplace talking shops?

So is it naïve to believe that the levels of inequality we are witnessing in the UK can be turned around? Whatever else you believe it is surely unhealthy for us all if the debate stops happening.

With this objective in mind WEA and Talkshop at Toxteth TV are holding  an event on 14th October  to discuss inequality in the UK and how to lobby for change with the 2015 election looming. It will be held at the John Archer Hall, 37-45 Windsor Street, Toxteth, L8 1XE from 6pm. Everyone is welcome, visit here to book.

Declaration for Democracy

The WEA has been working with Democracy Matters on developing a Declaration of Democracy, which will ask the main political parties to make a commitment to political education in their election manifestos.

On International Day of Democracy next Monday (15th Sept) we will be helping to build support for this initiative through a “Thunderclap” of messages on Twitter, Facebook and other social media which will all go out at the same time.

If you have a social media account (Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr), please take a moment to sign up at Thunder Clap for Democracy. Once you have given permission for access to your account, it will automatically send a message at 8am on Monday 15th to say:

“We call on all parties to support #learning4democracy and inclusive politics. Please RT now.”

This is an important initiative which supports our mission to inspire people to become active citizens so I hope you will join us and sign up.

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Nine ways to change the future

The UK and the rest of Europe are in a period of significant demographic change.

People will work until later in their lives, they may have several careers and have to support children and elderly relatives for longer. To respond, we need a whole of life approach to public policy, well beyond the traditional split between schools, work, pensions and health.

The WEA believes that education is central to this approach.

Successful countries see education as an infrastructural investment which has transformational effects on productivity, social mobility, health outcomes and community cohesion.

Without access to education and lifelong learning we will continue to have a divided society in which human potential is wasted.

Education, at whatever age, changes people’s lives and allows them to take control over their destinies. It is the key to reducing inequality and promoting social mobility and inclusion.

We have proposed a manifesto towards changing the future for the better – socially, economically and culturally. We invite others to join us to support and develop these arguments over the coming months.

The manifesto sets out nine measures to transform adult education in the UK:

1. Ensure there is always an opportunity for adults to return to learning

2. Promote equality, opportunity and productivity at work

3. Develop educational opportunities for the most disadvantaged

4. Help people stay active throughout life through health education

5. Reduce health inequalities to give people more control over their own wellbeing

6. Promote tolerance and inclusion through access to English

7. Value lifelong learning so adults of any age can study

8. Help parents become educational role models

9. Value volunteering through a single credible set of measurements

Click here to read the manifesto in full.



The legacy of the Tour de France

As you would expect from an ethically conscious charity like the WEA, many of our staff are keen cyclists, and this year’s Tour de France had the added bonus of finishing its second stage just outside our offices in Sheffield.

Ahead of the event, Yorkshire students combined poetry and song in this unique tribute to the Tour.

In London, many of our staff headed down to cheer the riders and there is no doubt that Le Grand Depart has been a fantastic success for England.

However, the Tour has also reignited the long running debate about the balance between cars and bikes. On Saturday, The Guardian published an Anonymous blog which said the worst thing about cycling was other cyclists and argued that a minority of cyclists give the majority a bad name. In response Peter Walker said that was nonsense and that faults with cyclist behaviour was exaggerated.

As a PR and cyclist, I have a great deal of sympathy with Anonymous. When you have a PR problem, like the one described by Sam Haddad in The Guardian, then the best way to address it is by stop doing bad things. In my career I have often been asked by companies why newspapers focus on all the negative stories and forget the good things they do – to which the answer is: stop doing the negative things and people will pay attention to the good.

Many cyclists flout the rules of the road, much to the annoyance of drivers and those cyclists like me that try to keep to them. If they stopped doing bad stuff we would all benefit.

At the same time, Peter Walker also makes the valid point that cyclists are treated as a group in a way unthinkable for drivers. Bad driving does not make all drivers bad – so why is it that cyclists are often treated like one group?

Following the GB team’s success at the Olympics and the Tour visiting Yorkshire, the enthusiasm for cycling is at a high. The WEA is committed to improving health, wellbeing and supporting the environment.

How can we encourage cycling in the UK?

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Ruth Spellman speaks at Unionlearn Conference

Speech from WEA Chief Executive, Ruth Spellman, to the Unionlearn Conference on 24 June 2014.

It‘s a great privilege for me to speak at this Conference today.

I pay tribute to Unionlearn and the importance of the network of union reps and union learning reps that do so much as volunteers in workplaces across the country. The training these these women and men have through Unionlearn courses is vital to their confidence and their ability to help people facing work issues and to encourage them to take up training – whatever their previous educational experience.

It’s been two years since I became GS/CEO of the WEA. During that time I’ve become convinced of the value of education to adults of all ages. In particular, the chance to take up a part-time course (fitting around their lives) makes a huge difference to people’s lives – helping them face change, take on new roles, support their families and contribute to society.

I believe that adult education is more than just a set of courses – it’s a critical investment in the future of our country, improving chances at work, giving a voice to people, building health and wellbeing, promoting community engagement and providing access to the cultures that are often only enjoyed by the privileged.

But we all know the difficult times we are facing. These are characterised by:

  • turbulence and change
  • more austerity, job losses and cuts
  • growing inequality – both globally and within our society
  • demographic change and
  • a digital era with its own potential inequalities

The WEA is an historic educational and campaigning organisation with over 70,000 students a year across England and Scotland. We run courses in almost every local authority area for adults of all ages. We change people’s lives but I’m convinced that the real value of adult learning is unrecognised beyond schools, universities and a rather narrow view of skills. We’ve consulted widely within and outside the WEA and this month launched a WEA Manifesto to change this. Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson spoke at our Annual Lecture at Birkbeck University of London as part of that launch 10 days ago.

The manifesto has nine points and I want to touch on some of them here. But why is the WEA producing a manifesto? It’s to return it to its campaigning origins – the suffragette movement, securing secondary education for all, women’s studies and trade union studies are all areas that WEA campaigned for over the years – often in partnership with unions and others. The 25 years of our partnership with Unison on Return to Learn is of particularly pride. I’m convinced that the power of adult learning is the key to progress on many areas of public concern – social exclusion, employability, community cohesion, skills development, health, democracy, social mobility, digital inclusion and a society at ease with itself. We know from other countries that economic success is not created by employers alone. It requires public investment, family and individual commitment and the examples and models set through civil society and the voluntary sector. The contribution of trade unions to promoting educational participation and progress should never be ignored.

So the WEA’s manifesto is making some broad demands that we hope many people will consider, discuss and debate. We’ll focus it in the period to the next election to try and get the benefits of adult learning into the heads of politicians and into the agenda around the election.
One issue we’re particularly concerned with is in-work poverty. We propose a simple approach to begin to improve this which combines two elements:

1. Promoting the Living Wage for all

2. Auto-enrolling workers at all levels into ‘Training and Development Accounts’ to support skills development (with matched contributions and Government funding for English and Maths qualifications)

We believe this combination is practical and could be reinforced across all public sector workplaces and in all public contract procurement. It recognises the success of pension auto-enrolment and has the ‘nudge’ factor that is needed to move workplaces on in terms of equal access to training. I believe it would go a long way to promoting equality, opportunity and productivity at work.

But we need more! We need to massively raise the participation levels of adults in education and training. This is an aim we share with UnionLearn and the Open University in our Social Partnership. We have two specific recommendations:

  • Promote part-time study and give the 60% of adults who did not go to university, but supported others through the tax system, an opportunity to access education at all levels later in life
  • Require all universities, colleges and schools to publish Community Access Policies to make education assets and infrastructure accessible through partnerships to all adults

You can see a theme emerging here – we believe that education is for life and that the challenges of demography and inequality mean we must tear down the barriers to participation.
Colleagues, that’s just two out our nine recommendations. Other deal with health, literacy, numeracy and ESOL as well as the need to recognise volunteering.

Again let me congratulate Unionlearn on the difference it has made to the education of thousands of working people and the role of volunteer representatives in unions in improving workplaces. Can I urge you to read our manifesto, tell us what you think of it – we’re ready for a debate! And share it with others in important year ahead of us up to a general election. I have copies with me here and would be happy to talk to any of you individually about the WEA and its plans.

Thank you