Monthly Archives: May 2013

Adult Learners Week and all that

Well it was a good week of sound bites and for serious celebration of student successes up and down (and across) the country.

 The WEA had two national winners along with an award in Scotland and they are described below.

 Two of our Regional Education Managers attended the Parliamentary Reception and I attended the Partner Breakfast  and presented the award for community learning to Kellie McGarry from Bolton who is now Shadow Director of an organisation called the Communiversity of Westhoughton in which volunteers and individuals develop as a result of community activities.  I also presented the Community Project award to the Cree Project in County Durham.  These are informal groups meeting in garden sheds to improve practical skills thus overcoming the negative impact of declining employment, restoring traditional skills which have become obsolete.

 We also celebrated the achievements of the 1500 entries as well as the 21 award winners.  The messaging about the importance of adult part-time learning was particularly powerful whether expressed in the diplomatic language of government, or the passionate language of our learners.  I was moved to tears by many of the stories, as were many of the other attendees at the awards presentations.  We heard from Karen Woods who was the overall award winner of the “Learning for work “ award, about her personal journey from dropping out of school with no qualification to publishing 6 books.  Karen has written a script for “Broken Youth” a play which premieres at Manchester’s Lowry Theatre later this year.  Another award winner, Margaret Isherwood, is 94 and is still pursuing learning and teaching roles contributing to her own health and wellbeing as well as enriching the lives of others.  Margaret runs wellbeing groups for older people and specialises in massage and healing therapies.  Perhaps most inspirational of all is the story of Jenny Dimmock who also won a learning for work award.  Jenny has Down’s syndrome but now holds a permanent post in a pathology laboratory following a work based study programme with City Hospital Sunderland.  She is a valued member of the team and benefitted hugely from a work based mentoring scheme, as well as her programme of study and training. 

 I am sure all of you will have personal memories of Adult Learners Week but I must finish this blog with some WEA stories – featuring three of our regions, Eastern, London and Scotland

 In Eastern Lisa Harrington, a learner from Basildon received the national individual award.

 Lisa who, having been addicted to drugs in the past, wanted a fresh start in life, said: “My motivation to learn and to change has come from my children. Having my children gave me the determination and strength to want to better myself for them.”


With no qualifications and never having had a job, Lisa wanted her children to have ambition. She felt the best way for this to happen was to have ambition herself. Lisa joined the Buddies of Briscoe – a parents’ support group at her children’s school – and began with a Practical Parent Helper course run by the WEA and Basildon Education Services Trust. This led to further courses and Lisa gained English Level 2, Maths Level 1 and the Supporting Children to Develop Reading and Numeracy Skills Level 1 qualifications. Lisa was then able to help her daughter with reading and maths and, as a result, her daughter has progressed well at school.

 Lisa is currently undertaking Level 2 Maths, as well as helping children at school with reading and maths and providing support to other parents facing difficulties. “What has changed as a result of the learning I have done is that I now have ambitions for myself as well as my children,” said Lisa, whose long-term goal is to become a drug and alcohol counsellor.

 Other eastern regional winners included Tammy Spriggs from the same learners group as Lisa, who was awarded the OCN Eastern Region Award, Ben Salmons, who won the WEA Learning for Wellbeing Award and Karen Thorman who won the Suffolk LEAP Award.

 In London, South Grove Primary School won the national award for family learning. The school offers a range of learning opportunities to improve the education and aspirations of extended family members of children attending the school. Together with the Workers’ Educational Association, the school offers ESOL, Numeracy, Literacy and ICT classes to parents, as well as a creative writing class; a crèche supports parents with pre-school aged children. Family learning includes Tai Chi, Juggling, Yoga, African Dance and Drumming, as well as a Creative Writing class in which participants produce a book featuring recipes, stories, songs and poems to reflect the diverse cultures in their community.

 “The varied learning journeys of our parents and families have made a real difference to their engagement in school life with a subsequent impact on their children’s learning,” said project leader, Brigid. As a result, many participants have taken driving tests, applied for citizenship, or gone on to further learning or work. Friendships have been formed between parents, confidence has increased and there is a stronger sense of community. One learner said, “The classes have helped me and I now volunteer with the reception children and help the staff.”

 In Scotland the Adult Learning Partnership Awards were held at the Scottish Parliament. The WEA won a national award for the Echt Reminiscence group which research and explore topics to relate students’ past experiences to present day issues. Over the years it has worked with learners aged 55 to 90+, and is open to residents and non-residents from the surrounding rural community.

 Finally I wanted to highlight my call for a more holistic approach to adult education in the FE week supplement to Adult Learners Week is available at

Ruth Profile



WEA Lecture

Last Thursday we had our first National Annual WEA Lecture.  It was delivered by Dame Jenni Murray, of Women’s Hour fame at University College London.  Professor Malcolm Grant, Provost and President hosted the event, and we had 270 guests, including current and past students, tutors, Trustees, partners, academics and members of the general public.

As Malcolm Grant said in his welcome speech the location for the lecture was particularly appropriate.  The UCL has a tradition of serving the community and traces its roots back to Jeremy Bentham and the Utilitarians.  However these days it is a truly global University second only to Cambridge in terms of its academic record and achievements.

Research is driven by individual curiosity or imagination and is central to UCL’s conception of excellence in leadership.  UCL is not an academic fortress but an open institution committed to working collaboratively with others.  In delivering what he calls a “culture of wisdom” Professor Grant has prioritised collaboration with non-commercial organisations working with business, industry and partners in London to deliver both social and economic value.

A culture of wisdom depends upon the application and sharing of knowledge, enabling cross disciplinary work and understanding the interconnections between academic disciplines.  It also respects non-academic contributions to our knowledge base.  UCL works closely with Westminster, Whitehall, hospitals, The City, the media, courts, galleries, museums and libraries and now with the WEA.  We hope the lecture will be the harbinger of a closer working relationship between HE and the WEA.

Turning to our lecturer, Dame Jenni Murray, Jenni is one of radio and television’s most respected broadcasters.  Her wide-ranging expertise in politics, business and the arts has led commentators to write admiringly of her “well-stocked mind”.  Her interviews with the powerful are described as “probing”, “steely” and “no-nonsense”, and her knowledge of the arts is matchless.  Jenni was made a Dame of the British Empire in 2011, in recognition of her stunning contribution to broadcasting for over 40 years.

Born and educated in Barnsley, Jenni has a degree in French and Drama from Hull University,  she also has Honorary Degrees from a number of universities including:  Bradford, Bristol, St Andrews and the Open University.

As the regular presenter of Radio 4’s Women’s Hour since 1987, she has daily demonstrated an incredible range and depth and a unique ability to understand the feelings and complexities of those she interviews, talents she has also brought to BBC TV’s Newsnight and Everyman and BBC Radio’s Today and Tuesday Call. 

Jenni is the author of:  My Boy Butch (2011); Memoirs of a Not So Dutiful Daughter (2008); The Women’s Hour:  A History of Women Since World War II and Is It Hot In Here:  A Modern Guide.

Dame Jenni managed to squeeze into her address a potted history of Women’s Hour and some of her varied experiences of growing up under the influence of BBC Radio, and the influential women she has interviewed.  We also heard a few personal insights into her role as a parent and some personal reflections on learning – a discontinuous process which goes on throughout life.  She was witty, self-deprecating, warm and engaged and she talked to me about her previous experience with the WEA, fully taking on board our important place in adult community learning.

For those who weren’t there, my enduring memories of the lecture will be

  • Her interview with Barbara Castle who was less concerned with political correctness than the fact that had arrived.  She was not concerned about Chair, Chairman, Chairperson as long as she was the Chair.
  • Her interview with Maggie Thatcher in which she was suitably shrivelled by the penetrating eyes.  She only realised halfway through her interview that Mrs Thatcher was unaware of criticisms of her from members of her Cabinet because she was exclusively reliant on Bernard Ingham, her press advisor.
  • Her views on feminism and attempts to influence her teenage boys
  • Her unwillingness to share household tips.  Like many of mine, they had a tendency to go wrong
  • Her ability to “wing it” when under pressure.  Surely this is an under-rated management skill.
  • Her message to modern women.  This is not the time to quit the fight for equality and an equal voice in politics, business and the home.


Although there has been a gender-quake the reality of too many women’s lives is of many unfulfilled dreams and ambitions.  We need to make sure that we pass on both the gritty determination and the aspirations of previous generations and share the “good stuff” as well as the heartaches.  We also need to influence men and boys, taking our responsibility for bringing them up differently, seriously.

All in all the lecture was a great start of the WEA series.  We are already canvassing ideas for next year.

If you have a contact / speaker who you think would be suitable let us know – and if you want to have your own Lecture regionally – contact your Regional Chair or REM.

Thanks for coming in such numbers and for being such an attentive audience.


Ruth Profile


The decline in adult participation in part-time education

The decline in adult participation in part-time education is a worrying consequence of changes in HE policy since the coalition government came to power.  Since 2010-11, part-time undergraduate entrants have fallen by 40% and part time post graduates by 27%.  NIACE, Birkbeck, The Open University and the WEA are seeking to raise the profile of this issue with government, emphasising the role which adult education plays in the UK and the ‘false economy’ of making the journey more difficult.

Part-time study has traditionally been a strength of the UK economy and the benefits of part-time study have been well documented.  A third of the total student population studies part-time and 61% of them are female.  Two thirds have family commitments and 2 in 5 have children.  The benefits are experienced by employers with 83% of part-time graduates saying they are better able to do their jobs because of their course.

In the WEA we know of many examples, past and present of students who have taken a WEA course, developed their confidence and skills, and who have then embarked on a university degree, achieving far more than they did whilst in full time education.

Distance learning has increased the range of part-time options that are available and the combination of tutor hours, tutor support, and colleagues and friends with whom to share the learning has meant a rich variety of learning styles and preferences can be accommodated.

Levels of employment stability are particularly high for part-time students with 81% working before, during and after their course.  These figures speak for themselves.

What can we do to counter the decline in part-time students?  The first thing to say is that we need to identify the cause of the decline.  If education has the power to transform lives and livelihoods, we need to get that message over.  All we hear through the media is about students who are in full-time study, their loans and their debts, and high levels of graduate unemployment.  We need to get the good news out about earning while you learn thus escaping from the low wage, low productivity trap in which too many of our citizens are caught.

Staying in employment means learning new skills.  All of us can benefit from access to educational resources, whether through a university degree, or through vocational studies or through improving our numeracy, literacy or critical thinking abilities.  These are vitally needed in our society.  We are therefore campaigning with others on reversing the decline in adult student numbers through;

·         Better information, advice and guidance (IAG) and communication to potential part-time students.

·         Reinstatement of the part-time premium.

·         A review of Equivalent or Lower Qualification (ELQ) policy.

·         Sharing the stories of success so that other part-time students are inspired.

·         Using the events and celebrations of Adult Learners Week to get our message out into communities and into the media – profiling the very big difference that access to part-time education can make.

·         Recruiting new ambassadors to our cause.

·         Developing links with the National Careers Service.

·         Developing links with the Women’s Business Council.

We also need to communicate the fact that part-time undergraduates can apply for an up-front loan, which could help reverse the decline in participation.  However at the moment too few are taking advantage of the loans, and we need to do more to make loans attractive for part-time study.

We also need to encourage a love of learning and develop a learning culture for adults.  Many of our WEA learners are hungry for challenges and opportunities.  This is why some who were students are now tutors and many of our alumni become volunteers.  Learning is not a problem to overcome but ignorance is and will impede economic recovery and growth.  Finding cost effective ways to get adults back into learning should be a top priority for the coalition government and for the UK.  Adult part-timers have been the biggest casualty of the 2012 changes and we cannot allow that to continue.

Ruth Profile