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?

SH Profile

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

NIACE publishes its Manifesto

Following the publication of the WEA’s Manifesto (click here if you haven’t seen it yet), NIACE has launched its own manifesto here.

The WEA welcomes the NIACE manifesto – not least because it complements much of our own manifesto launched on 11th June at Birkbeck University of London at the WEA’s Annual Lecture given by Baroness Tanni Grey-Thomspon.

A fixed date general election in the UK has focussed many minds on what the issues for debate should be between now and May. This is given particular emphasis by the anticipation of continued austerity despite welcome signs of recovery in the economy (or, at least, parts of it). In addition there is significant political uncertainty and, for many people, lack of clarity on the policy positions of the main parties. This is combined with the ‘meta’ issues of the global financial crisis, international instability, growing inequality and demographic issues.

Education is an infrastructural investment in the future – not a recurring expenditure line. It isn’t just a policy area for BIS or the DfE – it applies to all areas of public service. This is perhaps most striking in the area of health where the key drivers for improvement will be either improvements in clinical technology or patients taking control and managing their health. The latter is an educational process.

The NIACE manifesto majors on skills and learning whereas the WEA’s nine points are somewhat broader. We would support the second priority on ‘New Localism’ which aligns to some extent with one of our main campaigns ‘Deciding locally’. However, to succeed we believe this would need to go further in engaging communities in more of the decisions which affect them. We see this as key to democracy and to re-establishing public confidence in the decisions of agencies and government.

The third priority – around Personal Skills accounts – is very welcome as it is almost exactly the same as our manifesto’s call for Training and Development accounts. The success of the recent introduction of auto-enrolment into pensions – ‘nudging’ workers and employers into planning for the future – provides an ideal model for shared ownership of training and skills development for the whole workforce. We believe this should be combined with a massive extension of the Living Wage to reduce in-work poverty and provide the elements for decent work for the future.
Naturally we also welcome Priority 4 – the funding of basic skills is critical. We would emphasise the importance of ESOL more strongly because of the need to address intolerance and exclusion in Britain today – but we’re sure NIACE would be with us on this.

The key now is to promote debate and discussion on the priorities in both our manifestos to ensure that the value of adult learning to a successful society and economy is heard and understood over the next year.

Posted by:

Peter Templeton
Director for Membership, Volunteering and Marketing

Maya Angelou

A very great lady died last week. Despite all the many tributes to her from around the world, there is still so much to say. Maya Angelou was both an outstanding leader of her generation and a great author and poet who transcended race and gender.

Born into poverty and discrimination, she became a key influencer on the civil rights movement and a spokesperson for everyone who feels themselves held back from living a full and equal life with their fellow men and women. She famously knew why the caged bird sings and because of that she was able to voice the fears and raise the hopes of many.

I had the privilege of meeting her when she was the guest speaker at the NSPCC AGM in the early 1990s. She spoke to an audience of predominantly white middle-aged and middle class women about being raped at the age of 7. These things were rarely talked about at the time and never on a public stage in front of Princess Margaret and the great and good of the land.

The audience was captivated by her as she shared both her experiences and her learned wisdom. She made us all feel that it was perfectly natural to look disadvantage and discrimination right in the eye and to triumph over it.

More than anyone else I have ever met, she demonstrated the capacity for forgiveness whilst never conceding defeat or making any concessions to those who would deny her or any human being their basic rights.

The volunteers and staff of the NSPCC gave her a lengthy standing ovation and she became a lifelong supporter. We named a child protection centre in East London after her. Why is she so relevant today? Because she was unafraid and spoke out when it was unfashionable to do so. She took risks in the sure belief that she was speaking to and on behalf of many. She built credibility and trust across many audiences, academics, politicians, philanthropists, and ordinary citizens who loved her way with words. Her great gift for the English language and for communicating across cultural barriers was instrumental in changing attitudes, public policy and educational practices and concepts of family of community.

I still remember her speech to the NSPCC in which she invented her own terminology. She talked about heroes and the way powerful female role models had shaped her life. She made me realize that in the words of George Bernard Shaw “it is possible to be learned and light” and that you can’t trap the human spirit.

She would have been interested in the WEA’s unique vision of education for a social purpose and would have asked the question is there really any other kind? She would have loved to meet many of our students and tutors and would have understood the vital importance of the personal and equal relationship that needs to exist between them. She would have celebrated with us the fact that we live in a multicultural society which flourishes through its diversity and would have been frustrated by the continuing waste of human talent which still exists in our society today.

As we launch our manifesto for change and our campaign messaging on the theme of women overcoming disadvantage there could be no more compelling example. Her teaching and writing, speaking and performing will remain with us for many years to come.

Low pay in employment

Better paid and educated workers are better for the economy and inequality comes with many costs.

Five million UK workers are employed in low-paid jobs and the largest group feeling poverty is made up of families with at least one adult in paid work. Official figures miss out the most exploited workers, who include immigrants, young people and women, working illegally in the ‘underground’ economy.

Most people trapped by in-work poverty have not gone on to better paid jobs in the last ten years but some have been successful and there are good examples of effective workplace learning. These include Unionlearn initiatives and projects such as the longstanding ‘Return to Learn’ programme run by the Workers’ Educational Association and Unison.

Technology and globalisation is altering the labour market so much that planning for current job roles is short-sighted. Microsoft’s founder, Bill Gates, has said that, “Technology over time will reduce demand for jobs, particularly at the lower end of skill set…. I don’t think people have that in their mental model.” Policy debate and planning must move beyond today’s skills for today’s jobs and prepare for a fall in available employment for the people who are furthest from well-paid work.

There are at least three main challenges. Support is needed to help low-paid workers to progress into better paid and more secure jobs. We need to recognise that the pool of adults without secure work is likely to grow, with an impact on the public purse as well as on individual lives. Extended working ages and later entitlement to state pensions reinforce the need for more adult learning. Policy decisions need to address the learning and skills needs of adults who are in the workforce now if we are to tackle these issues.

Future jobs are likely to need digital, technical, creative, research and development skills. Meeting these needs seems a tall order in the wake of recent reports on levels of adult literacy and numeracy as well as on poverty and social mobility. A lack of applicable skills, confidence and prospects will have a knock-on effect on our society, economy and future public spending unless we take action.

Policy makers need to identify the gaps between future skills demands and current levels – and then to work out how we can bridge them. We need to understand the barriers to adult learning and to apply our knowledge of strategies that work. Obstacles include unpredictable work patterns, caring responsibilities and lack of information and networking with people already in education. Financial constraints, including the costs of transport or online connectivity, also deter workers who are paid below a living wage.

Community learning has a particular role in engaging people who are otherwise unlikely to get involved in education and also in campaigning for better working conditions. It acts as a catalyst and a connector as well as having value in its own right. It builds on the understanding that adult learning journeys are complex and individual and that people’s needs, talents, interests, motivation, opportunities and access to learning vary.

Affordable, accessible and relevant community learning encourages adults to take their first steps back into education in their neighbourhood or workplace. It provides essential and flexible support with networks for progression. Community outreach work, learning champions and union learning representatives are all shown to be successful at engaging new learners.

The quality and qualities of teaching, learning and assessment for adults are critical to success. Effective community learning tailors courses to suit adults’ requirements and is run in partnerships so that progression to further learning can be organic. Community Learning Trusts have an important role in this, as should Local Enterprise Partnerships, although community learning’s role as a route to further education is not recognised sufficiently. We need to raise awareness.

Trust, partnership and networks linking policy makers, funders, employers, learning providers and the general public are essential to make sure that no low-paid or unemployed adult is isolated from accessible and attractive learning opportunities.

Joined up adult learning strategies are essential if adults are to know how to join up and can be inspired to continue their learning and development for more rewarding work.

This article was first published in a special free edition of NIACE’s Adults Learning – “Poverty, work and low pay – The role of skills”. A copy of the full publication can be found at


Why maths matters

This week has seen the launch of the National Numeracy Challenge, which aims to show millions of people that they can do something to improve their everyday maths skills and give them the help needed to get there.

According to research from Pro Bono Economics, low levels of adult numeracy skills are costing the British economy £20bn per year, or about 1.3 per cent of the UK’s GDP. Government figures show that over 8 million adults have the skills roughly equivalent to 7 to 9 year-olds or younger. Rather than improving, the situation may be getting worse – the OECD says that England is the only country in the developed world where adults aged 55 to 65 perform better than 16 to 24 year olds in numeracy.

National Numeracy and its partners, which include the WEA, Nationwide Building Society, TUC unionlearn and many others, are determined to help people improve their maths skills and address the UK’s numeracy deficit.

Being numerate goes beyond just ‘doing sums’ – it means having the confidence to use numbers and maths in everyday life. The WEA runs numeracy classes for thousands of people across England and Scotland and we know it can be a daunting prospect for our students. They say they want to help their children with homework, progress their careers, get a job or just understand their bills, but lack the confidence and skills to do it.

Making that leap into a class is a major achievement in itself. The WEA is fortunate as we can bring maths classes into communities rather than behind college walls and our student-centred teaching methods make it easier for students who lack confidence to get better at maths. But we know that there are still many people that are being held back by poor maths skills and we all need to do more to increase the numbers who are doing something about it.

This is why the National Numeracy Challenge is an important. By enabling people in the privacy of their own homes to honestly assess their level of maths, it is a first step in helping them recognise that there may be a problem with their numeracy skills. The Challenge assesses practical problems so it’s not off-putting for people beginning their journey to better skills. This makes it very accessible and we will be taking the Challenge to our students and members to encourage more people to try out their maths skills and supporting National Numeracy in its objective of lifting one million people out of the poor numeracy trap over the next five years.

Alongside the Challenge, a new All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Maths and Numeracy has also been launched. This will provide a forum for debate to ensure parliamentarians are well-informed and to share effective ways to resolve the numeracy deficit by learning lessons from our overseas competitors alongside the role of both employers and teachers in addressing the problem. Liz Truss MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Education and Childcare and Barry Sheerman MP spoke at the launch, with both emphasising the need for long term solutions to the lack of maths skills in the UK.

I was particularly struck by the importance of parents gaining confidence in maths so they can help their children. It reminded me of three students from Basildon who I interviewed last year, Tammy Spriggs, Lisa Harrington and Janine Ginno, who all took numeracy as well as other courses. They show what a difference improving their maths skills made to their own confidence and their children.

So please take the test here and try out your skills whatever you think your level is. You may be surprised by the results.