Monthly Archives: March 2013

Adult education in Tower Hamlets

I spent a very enjoyable day in the London region last Friday visiting the Mulberry and Bigland Schools, the Burdett Neighbourhood Centre and the Poplar HARCA. 

These partnerships have been developed in Tower Hamlets. Despite the towers of Canary Wharf, much of the borough still suffers from severe deprivation and it remains one of the most deprived areas in the country.

In this community the WEA has managed to create, with its partners, some inspirational examples of adult and community learning which are boosting skills and confidence. 

I sat in on a session which was all about community interpreting.

All the ladies taking part were learning how to be an interpreter through role playing and giving constructive feedback to each other.  The session was particularly instructive because the interpreter was engaging with an issue of bullying in a school. Parents were asked to play a proactive role in overcoming the bullying, and by the end of the session they were able and willing to do this.

Everyone was learning from the session, not only in terms of English Language, but how to stand up for yourself, protect your children and ensure they can attend school. 

Later on in the day I met Josephine Adu, who runs the Poplar HARCA, and she showed me with great pride the centre she is running which has state of the art equipment. Numerous unemployed adults are gaining computer literacy skills and help in applying for jobs – facilities which are simply not available anywhere else. They are also given one to one counselling which is essential for them to make progress. 

Finally I visited a dress making class in the Burdett Neighbourhood centre, run by Mona Nashed, an Egyptian lady who was coaching mainly Muslim women in the arts and crafts of dressmaking.

Some of the ladies were there primarily to develop professional and personal relationships outside their home environment and to use their interests and skills to make clothes for their children.  It clearly gave them a valuable lifeline through which they are achieving great satisfaction for themselves and a benefit to their families. 

This visit on its own was a really good example of the multiple benefits which a WEA adult learning class can deliver and I was left with an abiding impression that both the partnerships, the staff, the tutors and the students were reinforcing each other’s achievement at every level, focussing on progression, support, evaluation and personal resilience as well as the more obvious outcomes.

As London develops to include these communities in regeneration schemes it appears to me obvious that the WEA has an important role to play – connected as it is to a myriad of voluntary sector organisations and delivering a broad range of skills and resources which are badly needed.  I would like to include some of these projects in our return on investment studies and when I left the Mulberry Centre we agreed that the next step would be to invite the local MP to come and visit these projects.

As I was visiting the projects I was thinking aloud about the number of businesses in the area who might be willing to sponsor our projects or otherwise get involved.  In the next few months HARCA will be launching various fundraising appeals and already has great contacts in the employer community. I was asking myself how can we work with HARCA to get our message across about the value of adult learning and how can we equip our students to face this very challenging labour market in London? 

Anyone who has any ideas, please respond to this blog.

I’d like to thank Audrey Stewart and Nita Karia for organising my day and for making sure that I was able to be part of a learning experience I shall never forget it.

Ruth Profile



A job, a vocation or a career?

One of the many issues the Coalition government is struggling with is how to deliver a National all-age Careers Service which is high quality. 

There is concern that all of us require career guidance – particularly at transition points in our lives. Many of us will require access to education and training to both secure a job and sustain employment. This is a much bigger issue than subject choice in schools. It is about raising aspirations and making the best use of human potential. 

As we contemplate longer working lives from choice or necessity, the displacement of blue-collar unskilled jobs, and the need for knowledge workers in every sector of our economy, it is clear that interventions are needed for both young people and adults who lack the means to earn a decent living.

The problem of our age is not that technology will fail to deliver – we already have the technology to feed the world – but that we human beings will not adapt at the pace and scale required.

As a result of the above, the new National Careers Service has a steep hill to climb. It must be credible and business-like if it is to serve the business community, it must be sensitive to the needs of individuals who will resist standardisation and it needs to inspire, enthuse and inform young people about the choices they have in life and their best prospects to succeed.

We need to do the same thing for soldiers returning from Afghanistan, mothers who want to return to work and utilise their skills and experience and the many people who are trapped in work poverty in the UK today.

For too many we are achieving a low skills, low wage equilibrium to use economic jargon.

As the budget draws nearer I would like the Chancellor to think about investing in the many who have the potential to contribute to the UK economy and will address and diminish our long-term issues of “private affluence and public squalor” to quote from JK Galbraith.

The social dividend from continuing to provide access to education and training throughout working lives is considerable. This year, the WEA is looking at evidence to show the return on investment to confirm what we already know – it is essential to any long-term recovery.

I was moved to read the story of Robert Peston in the Evening Standard this week. He has started a charity which brings businesses and women into schools to challenge and inspire young people. We can all get involved and make a difference.

Ruth Profile

Women at the top

It was International Women’s Day last Friday and I was privileged to give a speech to the Welsh WEA on women at the top. 

When the WEA was first established in 1903, it was only going to be for working men. But women made a contribution from the start and was soon very supportive of the suffragette movement and the campaigned for equal rights for women. 

Although much has been achieved over the last 110 years, it is also shocking how much further we need to go.

There is still a massive pay gap between men and women – 19.5% in the UK according to the European Commission, which is even worse than the European average of 16% lower. Research by the Chartered Management Institute shows at current rates of progress it will take another 57 years to close the gap.

Meanwhile, female unemployment recently reached its highest for 23 years and is now at over a million. 

While the government has set up initiatives like the Women’s Business Council, these predominately focus on top earners without addressing the need for a pipeline of future managers and workers.  

So what is to be done?

One of the key factors which may limit career aspirations of women is the desire to have a work/life balance and a preference for less extreme jobs that can be combined with the caring and nurturing roles adopted by women and respected within their communities. 

This is not just about child-bearing.  

Women also are connected with their communities – they prize relationships, they enjoy volunteering and caring roles many coping with both ends of the age spectrum.

So where do we go from here? 

Should we accept that the best ways for senior managers and leaders to behave is to embrace longer and longer hours, more stress, less collaborative working and less and less time for study and reflection? 

Is this the recipe for a healthier/happier Britain and a more resilient economy?  

I sincerely doubt it. 

Women, in my opinion, get this.  

They are naturally more collaborative. They attribute value to their family lives and, as employers, we need their skills and their differences. 

Perish the thought that in 2013 it is time to adjust the workloads for both men and women so that we make better decisions and work fewer hours.

Perhaps we need to take advantage of technology rather than let it take advantage of us. 

Put limits on the use of email/internet at weekends – reinstating the right to clock off.

Bring in fairer co-division of work for parents.

It’s not just about allowing both sexes to have family and caring leave.

It is about lowering our expectations so there is an acceptance about shorter working hours.

Increasing our creativity.

Creating space for people to think.

Think longer term. 

Let me leave you with some good news.

Recent research by the Sunday Times based on the Office of National Statistics data shows that women are working for longer and many more are starting up businesses. Since 2008 employment amongst older women over 50 has risen faster than any other group. Women also accounted for 80% of the 147,000 rise in self-employment between 2008 and 2011.

Whilst economic pressures are continuing this pattern, the majority of these women say they are returning to work because they need a challenge. These women are bringing valuable expertise back to work and can create many more jobs for the UK as a whole.

Let’s focus on how we can help these small businesses thrive and prosper.

Ruth Profile

Taking advantage of the pupil premium

Schools need to take advantage of the ‘pupil premium’.

Funding which is intended for every child who is entitled to free school meals amounts to £623 per head. This is a very significant sum of money in today’s tough funding environment and the school can draw down this funding to support a range of innovative projects run by charities such as the WEA. According to research conducted by Department for Education:

“parental involvement in children’s learning is a key factor in improving children’s academic attainment and achievements, as well as their overall behaviour and attendance. The role of parents during a child’s earliest years is the single biggest influence on their development. Good quality home learning contributes more to children’s intellectual and social development than parental occupation, education or income”. 

These findings come as no surprise to the WEA which has been delivering family learning over many years. Schools and parenting is a key WEA curriculum area and we currently run 249 courses annually, 38% of which lead to accreditation and we deliver with and through 60 partners, including schools, universities and children’s centres. 

The benefits to the adults involved are also very significant.

Nearly 40% of our students did not hold a qualification at level 2 or above and nearly 50% were living in areas of disadvantage.  There would therefore be a high correlation between the conditions of eligibility for the pupil premium and the young people and adults who we are engaging.

Our curriculum is also very flexible and includes a range of skills and outcomes, for example practical parent helpers is an introductory course but it leads to Helping in Schools (HIS), an accredited course. 

Family learning courses include cooking, learning through play, and supporting children with English and maths. The adults are getting maths and English Levels 1&2 and they are then in a much better position to help their children with homework and to understand any learning difficulties and seek our appropriate support. Teaching reading skills, helping in sentence construction and composition and general written communication is proving a real boon to young people – all the more because their learning is reinforced by positive role models at home and time committed by the parents towards their education. Most maths and English teachers have 3 or 4 hours a week at most with their pupils, parents are on duty 24/7. Do the maths! 

Just as with the Evening Standard Get London Reading Scheme the results, even in the short-term, can be very impressive. 

For the adults getting involved boosts self-confidence, encourages involvement in other volunteer activities, enables the acquisition of qualifications and enhances their own health and wellbeing. Head teachers have themselves reported children attending school more regularly along with improvements in behaviour and higher levels of achievement in academic studies.

These are impressive outcomes. A win-win for all concerned.

Why then is this opportunity being wasted or at least not utilised to the full? How many more children and their parents could benefit?

Some years ago I visited an inspirational catholic girls school in Londonderry as the guest of the then head teacher Geraldine Keegan, to present her with her Investors In People Champion award. Sixty per cent of the girls in the school were on free school meals, but all of them went onto employment or further and higher education. Geraldine didn’t have a pupil premium but she did understand the necessity of involving the parents as role models by bringing them into the school. St Mary’s was open at weekends running adult literacy and numeracy classes for adults, and parents regularly helped out as volunteers in their children’s classes. This integrated model of learning is very special and raises aspiration and performance. 

What better use for the pupil premium?

Ruth Profile