Showcasing the social impact of learning

The Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) is sponsoring the Festival of Learning Social Impact Award because we find the stories of many of our learners inspirational.  They overcome personal, social and educational disadvantages and become exemplars in their communities.

People like Ray Bullock who set up Endurance, which organises residential trips for rough sleepers, recovering alcoholics and people with mental health issues, taking them through their own personal development journey.

Having recently completed an MA in writing and philosophy at Liverpool John Moore’s University, Ray is now building writing skills into the Endurance offer.

Or Johurun Nessa, who joined our biggest environmental project two years ago in Newcastle upon Tyne, called Greening Wingrove, developing links with dozens of local community groups and introducing “community living rooms” which generate great ideas to improve the local neighbourhood.

My reasons are also personal.

My grandfather left school aged 11 and started his learning journey with the WEA in 1911 and went to Ruskin College, Oxford, and to Cambridge University, sponsored by his trade union.

He inspired his fellow workers and my sisters and I to value education, not only for personal gain but for the good it can do in the world.  Social impact can be measured in many ways, but community benefits and intergenerational impact are at the heart of this award.

For more information about the Festival of Learning including how to submit nominations for awards please visit the website The deadline for nominations for 2016 awards is 5pm on 20 May 2016.

The Festival of Learning is part-funded by the European Social Fund (ESF) to help publicise ESF activities and outputs. The ESF is a European Union initiative that supports activities to improve employment opportunities, promote social inclusion and invest in skills. The ESF is investing over £2.5 billion in England in the 2014-2020 programme. Funding will be used to

  • help young people, jobseekers and inactive people access employment;
  • tackle barriers to work faced by disadvantaged people; and
  • invest in education, skills and lifelong learning.

You can find out more at

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International Women’s Day 2016

March 8th is International Women’s Day, a time to celebrate the social, economic and political achievements of women across the world, reflect on past struggles and look to the future.

Gender parity is the theme for this year and individuals and groups are being urged to take action in order to accelerate equality for all.

Over my lifetime I have witnessed remarkable developments in terms of gender equality. Women’s lives have been transformed by technology, changes in our economy and in social attitudes so that women expect to compete on equal terms. Yet life chances are persistently unequal.

As Christine Lagarde, chief executive of the IMF, said in the 2014 Dimbleby Lecture, women “face discrimination at birth, on the school bench, in the boardroom. They face reticence of the marketplace – and of the mind”.

Carolyn Fairbairn, director general of the CBI, reminds us that far too few women run FTSE 100 companies and the pipeline of talent gets blocked by men who, more obviously, fit in. These uncomfortable realities have made me reflect on my own journey.

Today I am proud to be chief executive of the Workers’ Educational Association. The adult education charity has been going for more than a century and it is as badly needed today as it was in 1903.

A survey carried out by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in 2013 ranked England and Northern Ireland 14th for adult literacy and 16th for adult numeracy. This low level of adult skills inevitably impacts on the success of the economy as a whole.

According to the charity Go ON UK, nearly a quarter of the adult population lack basic digital skills, a phenomenon that affects women more than men, given time taken out because of childbirth.

Which is why the WEA helps thousands of working people and those in the poorest communities to return to education, whatever their age or income. People like my grandfather, who left school at 11 but who enrolled on a WEA course and eventually won a trade union scholarship to Ruskin College, Oxford, and another to Peterhouse at Cambridge.

Leading an organisation was something that I thought was beyond my grasp when growing up in a small Welsh mining town in the 1960s. When I read economics at Cambridge I was intimidated by the cutglass accents and the seemingly easy social confidence of my fellow students.

My accent wasn’t right and the first time I was invited out for dinner I turned up at midday. My first proper job was at the National Coal Board.

Working in such a male dominated industry in the 1970s was no picnic and, despite coal being in my blood, career opportunities were non-existent for women. Like many mothers, my career stalled after I had children. After my third was born I had to deal with redundancy and the serious illness of my husband. For a while, life was bleak.

Childcare costs plus working part-time meant that I was struggling financially. It is a vicious cycle that affects many women, which is why we have to do more to support mothers in the workplace.

 There is so much work to be done in the fight for equality. Last year, the WEA launched a campaign focusing on the importance of education and lifelong learning, to enable women to overcome the disadvantages they face in society.

The majority of our students are women and many of them use courses as a means to reskill or retrain. We must do more to promote inclusive and flexible workplace cultures.

The importance of this was recently confirmed by the Centre for the Modern Family, a think-tank established by Scottish Widows. Its latest report, published last week, revealed that one in four UK workers would sacrifice pay for greater flexibility.

The UK still has a way to go before men and women are on an equal footing. According to the World Economic Forum it is now ranked 18th out of 145 countries in terms of the gender gap, an improvement from the 26th place ranking it achieved last year.

So what do we do? According to the report no country in the world has achieved gender equality but I think there are lessons we can learn from those at the top of the league table: Iceland, Finland, Norway and Sweden.

I believe that true equality is possible. According to the World Economic Forum, it will take another 117 years until the pay gap between men and women is closed. Education is at least part of the answer.

We need to learn to be both gender and colour blind. We also need to recognise and reward good practice wherever we see it, learn from our own experience and the experience of other countries and cultures.

Globalisation has the potential to open up opportunities and to encourage wider participation – and global organisations need seriously to address widening and deepening the talent pool if they want to continue to be successful.

Governments need to take tough action where human values of respect and dignity are compromised and we need to tackle head-on the biggest temptation of them all: to set our sights too low and quit the field when the battle is not yet won.

This blog first appeared in the Sunday Express:






WEA tutor Bea Groves on the value of adult education

“The value of adult education is not solely to be measured by direct increases in earning power or productive capacity, but by the quality of life it inspires in the individual and generates for the community at large. It is an agent changing and improving our society.” (preface to ‘The Russel Report’, 1973)

In the thirty-plus years I have been teaching in adult and further education, I have learned that there are two kinds of taught subjects: those that are concerned with skills or work, and those that are not. The skills orientated subject areas tend to be taken seriously, are usually accredited, and attract funding. Those that are conceived of as ‘liberal adult education’ are often treated as leisure subjects, are non-accredited and are the first to be on the receiving end of cuts. These attitudes have largely come into being since the inception of the skills agenda in the 1980s. This is not to say that there wasn’t a degree of snobbery around some adult education subjects prior to that period, but the Thatcherite eighties were the main decade wherein negative attitudes to liberal adult education became entrenched in government thinking.

My own taught subjects started off at the ‘leisure’ end when I first qualified. I initially taught music appreciation, then history and philosophy. But I also taught ICT, and worked in teacher education. Nevertheless, it was much easier to discuss the ICT with my friends as it had the respect of being a ‘serious’ subject, whilst philosophy… well, it was a rather stuffy academic topic and not really suited to getting anyone a job, was it? How embarrassing! But I loved working in adult education. My WEA teaching was (and is) the strongest influence on my working life, and to this day I still gain more enjoyment from teaching liberal subjects than I do in the skills domain.

But the question remains: does liberal adult education provide any value whatsoever to British society? Is it worth funding?

This depends on how one visualises the purpose of adult learning. If one accepts the need for learning to support the development of society, then it is very clear that prosperity is part and parcel of that development. But how does society become prosperous? Certainly this comes from the capacity of individuals to work and innovate around wealth creation. This capacity means each individual should have an appropriate personal confidence, an understanding of society, a stake in the community, and be able to understand the changes taking place around them (technological, social, political, etc.). Indeed, understanding society itself is a crucial part of creating wealth and enabling its spread as prosperity. The idea that learning is only about the demand for certain immediate job-skills is a nonsense. Such a concept is predicated on short-term demand and supply mythology and doesn’t approach the question of long-term social development. The great irony, of course, is that a prosperous society comes from a wide-ranging background continuum of educational initiatives. These are based around building the strength of individuals to learn, continue learning, and expand their learning throughout their lives… often starting with a liberal subject such as music appreciation, or philosophy, or literature, etc.

It is in this ‘forming the continuum of learning’ that the WEA does exceptionally well. My own experience of this has been through a course I originally entitled ‘Great Thinkers’. I started teaching this many years ago, and it has developed ever since at a variety of venues and with a number of student groups. ‘Great Thinkers’ was about philosophy, politics and the sciences. But it became very clear at the outset that it wasn’t the subject taught that was the main success story of ‘Great Thinkers’ but the manner in which learning took place.

‘Great Thinkers’ is about participation. The students don’t just learn about the subjects taught week-to-week (often quite complex issues), but also about how learning works. They have major control over the course content. They discuss (and vote on) what they want to learn. They also dictate how learning will take place, by suggesting the activities they will be involved in. They manage the subject matter via discussion, and feedback on issues they want to expand or repeat. But what’s more important are their social relationships. Many meet outside of the course, share activities together and have become involved in campaign or voluntary work that has been stimulated by the course. The atmosphere is one of happy informality, but also a deep and focussed enthusiasm for the topic matter. Arguments happen often, and one of my roles as a tutor is to maintain good working relationships between each student. My position with regard to the group is hence one of facilitator, academic resource, organiser and leader. Certainly I am there to make sure the needs of the group are met, but this means a new kind of power relationship with the group that rarely exists in standard adult courses. Essentially, the course exists to enable each student to expand their horizons as they may, and through this process to make decisions for themselves that contribute to social participation… and hence to active prosperity.

If this all sounds familiar to WEA members and tutors, then that is because the Association has long fostered the concept of ‘communities of learning’ within its courses. That this provides a very strong means of encouraging learning is made clear by the work taking place within ‘Great Thinkers’ (now renamed ‘Big Ideas’ by the students!). Indeed, the WEA’s greatest asset is its communities of learning; it’s capacity to create welcoming, attractive and fun courses such as ‘Great Thinkers’. It is not the WEA’s courses themselves that are its selling-point, but the unique manner in which WEA learning takes place.

About the Author: Bea Groves is currently a tutor for WEA North East Region. She has worked for the WEA as volunteer and tutor since 1980. She is WEA Ambassador. She is also President of the ‘Tutor Voices’ national network for adult and further education teachers.

10 reasons to Save Adult Education

This is a re-post from Ann Walker, former WEA Director for Education

Please sign and share the link to the petition to Save Adult Education. Evidence shows successive and massive funding cuts over recent years and a decline in numbers of adult learners in part-time education.

Why does this matter?

There are countless reasons, but here are some:

  1. Education equips us for life, but the world keeps changing after our compulsory school leaving ages. Adults need to adapt to social and technological changes if they are to keep up with developments. What is the cost of leaving people behind?
  2. Being able to read and write English fluently and to use numbers accurately are basic skills, not only for jobs but for understanding how public services work, being a savvy consumer, reading health information, taking an active part in society and for leading a dignified life. What is the cost of low levels of adult literacy and numeracy?
  3. All government services are now designed to be ‘digital by default’. How does this work for people who can’t use technology effectively? What is the cost of digital exclusion?
  4. Young people leaving school now without specific grades in GCSE English and Maths have to reach those standards. How will they be supported if full-time education didn’t meet their needs and adult learning is being starved of resources? What is the cost of limiting adults’ educational opportunities when need is evident?
  5. Many school leavers with low attainment levels will become parents of children who follow the same pattern. Educating the parents through family learning partnerships is shown to break the cycle and improve attainment levels for both generations. What is the cost of continuing cycles of educational inequality?
  6. Education is not just for work. It promotes health and wellbeing, reducing isolation for older people and keeping their minds active, while harnessing the benefits of their experience and knowledge.What is the cost of not enriching older people’s lives through learning?
  7. Low levels of participation in voting means that democracy is not representative. Learning about how political systems work is important if we are to engage people in civic life.What is the cost of disenfranchised citizens?
  8. All aspects of life depend upon adaptability and active minds. Learning to learn is a skill in itself. What is the cost of failure to adapt?
  9. Education is a means to address inequality in many forms.What is the cost of inequality?
  10. Learning is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Art, literature, history and culture should be available to everyone and not only those who can afford them. What is life without interests and pleasure?

Adapting to a changing workforce: maximising the potential of older workers

A new report published today by the Centre for the Modern Family examines issues surrounding older workers, whose numbers have increased significantly year-on-year since the government’s abolition of the default retirement age in 2011. According to their ‘Older Workers’ study, in October 2014 there were more than 1.1 million over 65s still in employment in Britain.

Demographic change, i.e. the UK’s ageing population, is one of the most powerful forces shaping our society and in particular our workplaces. We are living longer, healthier lives; with many opting to remain in work once they reach the former default retirement age of 65.

Reasons for choosing to remain in employment are varied. Some feel that they still have much more to give to their particular role or organisation whereas for others their decision may be financially motivated. Wanting to retain the same lifestyle, the cost of caring for elderly relatives or supporting younger family members are often cited as common factors for staying in work. In terms of the individual benefits, the Department for Work and Pensions estimates that an average worker staying in employment for an extra year can ‘boost their pension pot by £4,500, in addition to earning an extra year’s salary’.[1]

So what should we do to respond to this change? I believe that the productive potential for older workers is enormous and something which employers must give greater priority. Investment in training later in life is part of the solution to retaining older workers, who come with a wealth of experience, and closing our ever-widening skills gaps.

Think tanks such as the Centre for the Modern Family are right to highlight this important issue and suggest ways in which we can adapt our workplaces to suit today’s needs. Indeed, finding ways to modernise our ways of working could pay huge dividends in the future. Further support in the run-up period to retirement, mid-life career reviews, skills audits and offering flexibility working where possible may help keep valuable older workers. Earlier this year, Dr Ros Altmann CBE estimated that if half the 1.2 million older workers – who are currently economically inactive but would like to work – re-entered the labour market we could boost GDP up to £25 billion a year[2]. The time to act is now.



Ruth Profile

Sport with no boundaries – world’s first mixed ability rugby tournament

Bumbles banner

August 2015 was a month of celebration for the WEA. It marked the first ever mixed ability rugby world tournament which brought together more than 400 players from 10 different countries including France, Serbia and Argentina. Under the inclusive mixed ability model, players with learning difficulties and physical disabilities, ranging from Down’s syndrome to cerebral palsy, play full contact rugby alongside their able-bodied peers.

The mixed ability rugby movement in England started with a Bradford-based rugby club – the Bumble Bees. Rugby fan Anthony Brooke, who was born with cerebral palsy, founded the team six years ago after he was repeatedly told that he was better off on the sidelines.

With the support of the Workers’ Educational Association, Anthony established the Bumble Bees, who now have over 40 registered players who train regularly at a local rugby club based in Bingley, West Yorkshire.

They also have the backing of the Rugby Football Union after scooping the RFU President’s award last year, in recognition of their efforts to bring the game to those from different backgrounds. Thanks to the Bumbles, there are now three new mixed ability rugby clubs in England, with others in the pipeline across Europe.

Members of the Bumbles team have now gone on to set up International Mixed Ability Sports, whose members conceived and organised the international mixed ability games.

Mark Goodwin, Bumbles Manager and one of the driving forces behind the world tournament, summed up the jubilant mood recently: “If you told me a few years ago that we’d be hosting an international mixed ability rugby tournament, I wouldn’t have believed it. The origins of this world tournament stem from a real need to provide inclusive sports and this is genuinely rugby for all.”

Ruth Profile

Reflecting on Adult Learners’ Week

Like everyone else that took part in this year’s Adult Learners’ Week celebrations, I was struck by the remarkable stories of tutors and students nominated for awards. For me, each submission was a validation of lifelong learning. While the 2015 nominees come from all walks of life, varying in age, circumstance and experience, each one demonstrates the transformative power of adult education. Their lives and prospects have improved immeasurably as a result of acquiring new skills and tapping into their potential. I’d like to say a little about some of the truly inspirational national award winners, whose personal trajectories could have been very different without the intervention of further education.

Lee Hughes, winner of the ‘Outstanding Individual’ award at the national ceremony, gave a rousing speech, detailing the obstacles he had to overcome before experiencing success. Lee, who is intelligent, articulate and incredibly talented, didn’t do particularly well at school, leaving without any qualifications. On top of this, his subsequent years were afflicted with his battle with drug addiction. Enrolling onto the Access to HE Diploma course at Northern College was his major turning point. With the encouragement of an excellent support team, Lee excelled and is now reading modern history at Sheffield Hallam university. With his sights firmly set on a career in politics, Lee has secured an internship working for his local MP.

Adele Tilley, was awarded the Patron’s accolade, handpicked by HRH the Princess Royal. Throughout her life, Adele has shown true strength of character. In care for most of her childhood with, her education suffered as a result. At the age of 21, she returned to education studying GCSEs in English, maths and ICT. This led on to and Access Diploma in Business Management. Adele has flourished in the last few years and is now studying for an Integrated Business Masters at De Montfort University. She has done all of this while raising two young children.

Adele’s journey is even more remarkable considering the bleak statistics around children in care in relation to education. Statistics from the DfE, show that children in care are less likely than their peers to do well at school, have higher levels of Special Educational Needs (SEN) and face higher exclusion rates. According to the latest government figures, 34% of care leavers were not in education, employment or training at age 19 compared to 15.5% of the general population. This is where lifelong learning steps in. Further education must be available and clearly signposted to groups whose educational outcomes are severely diminished at secondary school level.

The President’s award went to the Humber Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP). They help local people acquire the employability skills that they need and have galvanised over 300 organisations across the Humber region to invest in workplace skills. Among the activities encouraged are: workplace mentoring, internships, placements for those furthest from the labour market and apprenticeships.

The ‘Learning For Work’ prize went to Jami Blythe. In Jami’s own words:

“[Adult learning] has allowed me to develop and grow into a more confident, open-minded and imaginative professional. When I studied for GCSEs over 20 years ago I had to receive extra tuition for poor academic skills. To achieve another degree with first class honours, change the course of road safety education…receive an award, present at an international conference and begin a professional doctorate within one year makes me truly grateful that I decided to study once again.”

Once again, I was thrilled to be part of Adult Learners’ Week, which year upon year proves how vital further education is. The ceremony came at what is a very challenging time for the sector – dwindling numbers of part-time students and looming cuts to FE budgets. I sincerely hope that policy-makers are taking note. Investment in adult education will pay dividends for individuals and communities in terms of productivity, social mobility and health outcomes.