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.


Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame – Prof. Sir David Watson

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

David-Watson-webprofile-260x300 (1)

How sad it is to read of David Watson’s death after a short illness. He was an eminent English academic and educationalist whose career included roles as a Professor at the University of Oxford and Vice Chancellor of the University of Brighton.  There will be warm tributes from the institutions where he worked but his influence also had a wider impact across adult education and community learning.

Written with Tom Schuller, his 2009 report on Learning though Life remains very relevant and merits further reading. It was the outcome of an extensive and inclusive NIACE-led Inquiry into the Future of Lifelong Learning. The WEA held several public meetings as part of the Inquiry, debating the issues and the outcomes. It is worth assessing what has happened to adult education policy since the report was published.

Learning through Life

The report’s introduction sets the tone:

“We begin from the premise that the right to learn throughout life is a human right. Our vision is of a society in which learning plays its full role in personal growth and emancipation, prosperity, solidarity and local and global responsibility.”

It is worth a reminder of the Inquiry’s summary conclusions:

Learning Through Life: our proposals

The UK’s current system of lifelong learning has failed to respond to the major demographic challenge of an ageing society, and to variety in employment patterns as young people take longer to settle into jobs and older people take longer to leave work. We make ten recommendations for a lifelong learning strategy which will mark out the UK as a true pioneer in this field.

1. Base lifelong learning policy on a new model of the educational life course, with four key stages (up to 25, 25–50, 50–75, 75+)

Our approach to lifelong learning should deal far more positively with two major trends: an ageing society and changing patterns of paid and unpaid activity.

2. Rebalance resources fairly and sensibly across the different life stages

Public and private resources invested in lifelong learning amount to over £50 billion; their distribution should reflect a coherent view of our changing economic and social context.

3. Build a set of learning entitlements

A clear framework of entitlements to learning will be a key factor in strengthening choice and motivation to learn.

4. Engineer flexibility: a system of credit and encouraging part-timers

Much faster progress is needed to implement a credit-based system, making learning more flexible and accessible with funding matched to it.

5. Improve the quality of work

The debate on skills has been too dominated by an emphasis on increasing the volume of skills. There should be a stronger focus on how skills are actually used.

6. Construct a curriculum framework for citizens’ capabilities

A common framework should be created of learning opportunities which should be available in any given area, giving people control over their own lives.

7. Broaden and strengthen the capacity of the lifelong learning workforce

Stronger support should be available for all those involved in delivering education and training, in various capacities.

8. Revive local responsibility…

The current system in England has become over-centralised, and insufficiently linked to local and regional needs. We should restore life and power to local levels.

9. …within national frameworks

There should be effective machinery for creating a coherent lifelong learning strategy across the UK, and within the UK’s four nations.

10.Make the system intelligent

The system will only flourish with information and evaluation which are consistent, broad and rigorous, and open debate about the implications.

Thank you David Watson.

National Voter Registration Day

Today is National Voter Registration Day and it is more important than ever to make sure everyone who has a chance to vote is signed up. The recent move to individual electoral registration has meant that although 90% of people were automatically switched to the new system, millions could potentially miss out on their vote, particularly students, those living in private rented accommodation or have moved recently.

For over 100 years, the WEA has encouraged generations of students and volunteers to become active citizens in their communities. This is part of our mission for ‘a better world – equal, democratic and just’. If you know of any member of your family or friends who might need to register, make sure you remind them today.

If you would like to register, you can visit the online government portal at here – it only takes five minutes but you will need a national insurance number. If you are unsure about whether you are entitled to vote, please download the Electoral Commission guidance here.

National Voter Registration Day is an important part of our efforts to increase political literacy throughout the UK.

Through the WEA’s community engagement education, we seek to combat social exclusion and promote active citizenship.

Working with socially and economically disadvantaged adults along with members of marginalised communities, the WEA runs courses to help students appreciate political and social issues. Our active citizenship programmes encourage greater participation in democratic decision-making while our community volunteering courses empower students to take a stronger role in civil society.

As a non-party political charity, we do not promote a particular party political view – our role is to help people understand the issues for themselves so they can make their own informed choices. To find out more about our work in promoting active citizenship to help reduce inequality and promote social mobility, social justice and inclusion, please visit our Why Vote? – Deciding Locally pages.

Our democracy is precious and each vote can make a difference. Please make sure you, your family and your friends can make your voice heard at the next election.

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?