Monthly Archives: February 2013

Lessons in learning from the Halle Orchestra

Last Sunday I was fortunate enough to attend a wonderful concert as part of the Halle Orchestra’s 155th Season. It was moving and inspirational for a number of reasons beyond the obvious enjoyment of the audience and the virtuosity of the performers which one would expect from one of Britain’s world class orchestras.

This year alone the Halle has been shortlisted as a double finalist in the 2013 BBC Music magazine awards for performances of Wagner’s Die Walkure and Elgar’s The Apostles which have both received high critical acclaim. For those who want to vote for the Halle to win the awards you can hear their performances by visiting and vote by February 28th. What these recordings and awards do not do however is tell the full story of the Halle. Like the WEA the Halle has become an iconic brand well-known and liked in its community, and respected for the work it does to stimulate the involvement of both adults and young people in the arts. Under its current chair, Sir Mark Elder and with support from a wide range of sponsors and volunteers, combined with the considerable talents of its management team led by John Summers it is able to reach new audiences and inspire the next generation of artists and concert goers. The Halle also has a number of education sponsors including Manchester Airport, Pinsent Masons and Siemens.

Through a scheme called “adopt a player” children from inner schools in Manchester and the surrounding catchment area attend a concert and take part in a creative music project. For many this will be the first time they have seen many of the instruments and certainly the first hands on experience. They also get to meet members of a professional symphony orchestra and visit one of our finest concert halls.

Each of the classes is assigned its own Halle musician who has already met the children, can talk about their lives and careers and perform a piece on their instrument.

They then act as a coach to groups of children so that the children themselves can create their own composition.

The finale is a performance involving the teachers from the local schools, the children and the Halle musicians.

As well as the adopt a player scheme the Halle has a long tradition of involving and engaging both adults and children in music as a way of stimulating and encouraging a passion for learning – giving the important signal that classical music is accessible to everyone. The orchestra itself is the epitome of effective teamwork, creating something special and unique through collaboration. The skills the children are learning from these adult performers are vitally needed by employers and are not always sufficiently developed in a conventional schools environment. The Halle is taking education to the learners, performing a vital function within our education system and creating a new talent pool for us all to draw upon.

As I watched Andrew Gourlay, the Halle’s relatively new assistant conductor bounce on his toes to achieve an amazing and stunning performance, I was struck by the power of the Halle example and the profound difference this orchestra makes in the North West of England. It has kept true to its roots, but is genuinely multi-national. It always aspires to be the best. It has dedicated musicians, some of whom have been in the Halle for the past 20 years and it has excellent management and leadership. Most of all the Halle is reaching out to the next generation.

If only the whole of our educational delivery could be this challenging and exciting.

Ruth Profile


FE or not FE?

On Friday February 8th I attended an excellent consultation session on the proposed FE Guild.

It was excellent because the thirty or so people in attendance represented a very diverse sector and because there was a proper debate about who the guild is for and therefore what it should be called and how it should be constituted.

Our view was that the new organisation should be for the workforce in the adult learning and skills sector.  If it is to get early traction and credibility it must be an alliance – representing practitioners with different roles and embracing teachers, trainers, tutors, coaches, assessors and outreach workers. It must be inclusive and engage specialist areas of work such as family or offender learning and it must be able to engage owner entrepreneurs and SMEs.  It must have all the attributes of a proper professional body and could have both an individual and corporate member offer. Indeed without both it is hard to see how standards can be set and met.

We much preferred the title to include the word alliance rather than a ‘guild’ which has historical and perhaps misleading connotations. We also preferred a broader terminology rather than FE which could convey a predominance of FE College influence.  Furthermore we did not agree that the new body should be restricted to organisations funded by the SFA.  Clearly funding will change in the future and many new players will enter the field. It is in everyone’s interest if they subscribe to the same professional standards and behaviours.  Smaller operators also have the most to gain from becoming members.

We agreed that the proposed organisation would ‘develop, recognise and enhance the professionalism of the workforce and the sector’ ( quote from the consultation document issued by AoC, NIACE and the AELP ).  We spent some time discussing what members will most need including professional advice and support, on-going CPD, networks and online resources.  Our visual image of the new body was a hybrid of the HE Academy and the Open University.  We also supported the idea of the new body investing in R&D and promoting and sharing international best practices. We also thought the new Alliance should be prepared to accredit learning using the QCF framework and to provide shared services.

All of the above will ensure the new body adds value and builds on the legacy of LSIS which many of us have valued.  Such a compelling service offer would also help to build a self-sustaining business model over the medium term.  In terms of corporate governance we would like learners, practitioners and employers to be represented at the most senior levels and for the collective alliance to therefore speak out about the issues which may compromise the professionalism of the sector, promoting quality and standards. There is understandable and real concern that without such a body we could see competition driving standards downwards and practitioners being squeezed between a rock and a hard place. There is nothing worse for professionals than wanting to do a good job and then not having the resources or the respect from the wider community to be truly effective.  If this is the central purpose of the new body whatever it is called it will be warmly welcomed.

Access to high quality learning is vital to sustain economic growth.

If you think competence is expensive, try incompetence.

Ruth Profile

Thoughts on improving the health of young people

Reading the Sunday Times recently I was struck by an article written by Eleanor Mills who was one of our judges in the WEA National Awards last November. In her piece, Put it down, sweetie, and get cookingEleanor wrote about obesity, poor eating habits and exercise patterns, which are having a damaging impact on the health of young people in our society.

 She quotes some damming statistics such as the fact that many children have developed such sedentary habits that 75% of under 11’s would prefer to stay at home than go out and play in a park and an astonishing 89% say that their first preference for leisure time is watching television or playing computer games. She goes on to say that we can all play a role in influencing young people. The food manufacturing industry could reduce the salt and sugar content in snacks and cereal, and retailers could stop promoting sweets at heavily discounted prices at checkout desks in supermarkets. The government can tax sugary drinks and probably all of these things should be done. In the end however we are talking about consumer behaviour and the way we do or do not look after our health.

 As one of our own Directors of the WEA, Peter Caldwell, points out in his recent blog: 

“Sixty four years after the formation of the NHS, and forty-two years after the Black report on health inequality, the social gap in health and life chances remains massive. There is a seven-year gap in life expectancy between the most and least well off areas and, perhaps more striking, a seventeen year gap in disability-free life expectancy. Shocking really. Surely those figures alone (taken from the 2010 Marmot review, ‘Fair Society, Health Lives’) present a massive case for piling resources into public health measures to engage with and support those who are most vulnerable to life limiting conditions and shorter life expectancy.”

We know that adults, parents and mothers in particular play a major role in influencing eating, exercise and lifestyle habits for young people. It is the observed patterns of behaviour of your parents, carers, and other grown-ups which fundamentally shape your view of when and what to eat, whether you take opportunities for exercise and whether you go out to play. Early tastes and habits are formed which can take a lifetime to challenge or amend and which cause a variety of social and economic problems. As the health service comes under increasing strain, initiatives which prevent ill-health must merit further examination. It is a statistical fact that the most vulnerable groups in our society need the most help.

In WEA classes in the Midlands we have been delivering health and wellbeing classes since April 2001. They have had a proven impact on diabetes / strokes and heart disease. These are all big killers in 2013 and even if they don’t kill you, they severely impact your quality of life and the lives of your loved ones.  70% of our adult learners are women. They say that their primary motivation is to be a better role model for the next generation. Through a combination of their motivation and our adult learning we can and do make a real difference.

Ruth Profile

A visit to Basildon

Last week I visited the Briscoe PrimaRuth and BEST Studentsry school in Pitsea, Basildon, Essex.

I knew about the school already having presented the Learner Group of the Year award at the WEA “Making a Difference” conference held at the Houses of Parliament on 7 November 2012.

Hearing about their story and then meeting them at the school was an amazing experience. They were an illustration of what is meant in our society to not achieve at school, to be vulnerable and to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, without the emotional maturity and support to deal with it. However Tammy, Lisa and Janine are not casualties, they are survivors, and they are bringing their children up to have dreams and ambitions and to be good citizens. It all started with getting Tammy, Lisa and Janine back into learning. Small bite-sizes they could easily digest in an environment which respected and supported them.

Tammy, a 27 year old mother of four, left school at 13 without any qualifications. Due to a troubled home life she had little interest in education and found school challenging. Tammy speaks openly about being an angry child with little confidence; she believed that her life wasn’t going anywhere. At the age of 15 Tammy had her first child.

Lisa left school at 15 without any qualification and experienced a difficult few years where she lost her way in life. No qualifications meant that Lisa had no employment prospects. “I am quite open about my past, I would never lie about that because it is who I am now, it has made me the person I am today,” she says.

Janine, a mother of four children, now loves learning. As an adult, the only mathematics which Janine used was money for shopping and bills, “your only maths is how much you have left when you have been to Tesco’s and how much you owe. You don’t think of angles or litres and how much you have left after you’ve drunk the milk – it’s just gone. So putting it all into sums and questions totally threw me.”

All three students have made remarkable progress since joining the WEA, both academically and in terms of life skills.

In turn, Lisa and Tammy have become learning support volunteers at their children’s school and both have joined parents groups. Lisa provides support to others, particularly those experiencing difficulty with their own children, and Tammy has helped set up a “Friends of the School” group.

Tammy describes her confidence as “through the roof” and is determined that one day she will fulfil her dream of becoming a midwife. Janine aims to expand her set of qualifications, so that she can pursue her interest in working to stop bullying amongst children.

One of the phrases Lisa used to describe her experiences will stay with me for a long time. “When my 6 year old told me, you don’t need to worry mum, when I am big I’m going on the social just like you.”  This was the sentence that changed her life, and her son’s.

Do we need to go through Lisa’s experience in order to share it and learn from it?

The WEA runs classes in schools and in community settings across the UK in which adults learn how to be citizens, parents and role models. These are the best cures for anti-social behaviours, worklessness and deprivation in our communities. The government, locally and nationally could learn lessons from Tammy, Lisa and Janine, and the WEA can give lessons in how to engage them.

Longer term we hope to see many more in-school projects. This particular course was developed in partnership with the Basildon Education Services Trust (BEST) working closely with a sympathetic Head Teacher, and the whole school.

It is an excellent example of partnerships achieving results.

Ruth Profile