Monthly Archives: June 2014

Ruth Spellman speaks at Unionlearn Conference

Speech from WEA Chief Executive, Ruth Spellman, to the Unionlearn Conference on 24 June 2014.

It‘s a great privilege for me to speak at this Conference today.

I pay tribute to Unionlearn and the importance of the network of union reps and union learning reps that do so much as volunteers in workplaces across the country. The training these these women and men have through Unionlearn courses is vital to their confidence and their ability to help people facing work issues and to encourage them to take up training – whatever their previous educational experience.

It’s been two years since I became GS/CEO of the WEA. During that time I’ve become convinced of the value of education to adults of all ages. In particular, the chance to take up a part-time course (fitting around their lives) makes a huge difference to people’s lives – helping them face change, take on new roles, support their families and contribute to society.

I believe that adult education is more than just a set of courses – it’s a critical investment in the future of our country, improving chances at work, giving a voice to people, building health and wellbeing, promoting community engagement and providing access to the cultures that are often only enjoyed by the privileged.

But we all know the difficult times we are facing. These are characterised by:

  • turbulence and change
  • more austerity, job losses and cuts
  • growing inequality – both globally and within our society
  • demographic change and
  • a digital era with its own potential inequalities

The WEA is an historic educational and campaigning organisation with over 70,000 students a year across England and Scotland. We run courses in almost every local authority area for adults of all ages. We change people’s lives but I’m convinced that the real value of adult learning is unrecognised beyond schools, universities and a rather narrow view of skills. We’ve consulted widely within and outside the WEA and this month launched a WEA Manifesto to change this. Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson spoke at our Annual Lecture at Birkbeck University of London as part of that launch 10 days ago.

The manifesto has nine points and I want to touch on some of them here. But why is the WEA producing a manifesto? It’s to return it to its campaigning origins – the suffragette movement, securing secondary education for all, women’s studies and trade union studies are all areas that WEA campaigned for over the years – often in partnership with unions and others. The 25 years of our partnership with Unison on Return to Learn is of particularly pride. I’m convinced that the power of adult learning is the key to progress on many areas of public concern – social exclusion, employability, community cohesion, skills development, health, democracy, social mobility, digital inclusion and a society at ease with itself. We know from other countries that economic success is not created by employers alone. It requires public investment, family and individual commitment and the examples and models set through civil society and the voluntary sector. The contribution of trade unions to promoting educational participation and progress should never be ignored.

So the WEA’s manifesto is making some broad demands that we hope many people will consider, discuss and debate. We’ll focus it in the period to the next election to try and get the benefits of adult learning into the heads of politicians and into the agenda around the election.
One issue we’re particularly concerned with is in-work poverty. We propose a simple approach to begin to improve this which combines two elements:

1. Promoting the Living Wage for all

2. Auto-enrolling workers at all levels into ‘Training and Development Accounts’ to support skills development (with matched contributions and Government funding for English and Maths qualifications)

We believe this combination is practical and could be reinforced across all public sector workplaces and in all public contract procurement. It recognises the success of pension auto-enrolment and has the ‘nudge’ factor that is needed to move workplaces on in terms of equal access to training. I believe it would go a long way to promoting equality, opportunity and productivity at work.

But we need more! We need to massively raise the participation levels of adults in education and training. This is an aim we share with UnionLearn and the Open University in our Social Partnership. We have two specific recommendations:

  • Promote part-time study and give the 60% of adults who did not go to university, but supported others through the tax system, an opportunity to access education at all levels later in life
  • Require all universities, colleges and schools to publish Community Access Policies to make education assets and infrastructure accessible through partnerships to all adults

You can see a theme emerging here – we believe that education is for life and that the challenges of demography and inequality mean we must tear down the barriers to participation.
Colleagues, that’s just two out our nine recommendations. Other deal with health, literacy, numeracy and ESOL as well as the need to recognise volunteering.

Again let me congratulate Unionlearn on the difference it has made to the education of thousands of working people and the role of volunteer representatives in unions in improving workplaces. Can I urge you to read our manifesto, tell us what you think of it – we’re ready for a debate! And share it with others in important year ahead of us up to a general election. I have copies with me here and would be happy to talk to any of you individually about the WEA and its plans.

Thank you


NIACE publishes its Manifesto

Following the publication of the WEA’s Manifesto (click here if you haven’t seen it yet), NIACE has launched its own manifesto here.

The WEA welcomes the NIACE manifesto – not least because it complements much of our own manifesto launched on 11th June at Birkbeck University of London at the WEA’s Annual Lecture given by Baroness Tanni Grey-Thomspon.

A fixed date general election in the UK has focussed many minds on what the issues for debate should be between now and May. This is given particular emphasis by the anticipation of continued austerity despite welcome signs of recovery in the economy (or, at least, parts of it). In addition there is significant political uncertainty and, for many people, lack of clarity on the policy positions of the main parties. This is combined with the ‘meta’ issues of the global financial crisis, international instability, growing inequality and demographic issues.

Education is an infrastructural investment in the future – not a recurring expenditure line. It isn’t just a policy area for BIS or the DfE – it applies to all areas of public service. This is perhaps most striking in the area of health where the key drivers for improvement will be either improvements in clinical technology or patients taking control and managing their health. The latter is an educational process.

The NIACE manifesto majors on skills and learning whereas the WEA’s nine points are somewhat broader. We would support the second priority on ‘New Localism’ which aligns to some extent with one of our main campaigns ‘Deciding locally’. However, to succeed we believe this would need to go further in engaging communities in more of the decisions which affect them. We see this as key to democracy and to re-establishing public confidence in the decisions of agencies and government.

The third priority – around Personal Skills accounts – is very welcome as it is almost exactly the same as our manifesto’s call for Training and Development accounts. The success of the recent introduction of auto-enrolment into pensions – ‘nudging’ workers and employers into planning for the future – provides an ideal model for shared ownership of training and skills development for the whole workforce. We believe this should be combined with a massive extension of the Living Wage to reduce in-work poverty and provide the elements for decent work for the future.
Naturally we also welcome Priority 4 – the funding of basic skills is critical. We would emphasise the importance of ESOL more strongly because of the need to address intolerance and exclusion in Britain today – but we’re sure NIACE would be with us on this.

The key now is to promote debate and discussion on the priorities in both our manifestos to ensure that the value of adult learning to a successful society and economy is heard and understood over the next year.

Posted by:

Peter Templeton
Director for Membership, Volunteering and Marketing

Maya Angelou

A very great lady died last week. Despite all the many tributes to her from around the world, there is still so much to say. Maya Angelou was both an outstanding leader of her generation and a great author and poet who transcended race and gender.

Born into poverty and discrimination, she became a key influencer on the civil rights movement and a spokesperson for everyone who feels themselves held back from living a full and equal life with their fellow men and women. She famously knew why the caged bird sings and because of that she was able to voice the fears and raise the hopes of many.

I had the privilege of meeting her when she was the guest speaker at the NSPCC AGM in the early 1990s. She spoke to an audience of predominantly white middle-aged and middle class women about being raped at the age of 7. These things were rarely talked about at the time and never on a public stage in front of Princess Margaret and the great and good of the land.

The audience was captivated by her as she shared both her experiences and her learned wisdom. She made us all feel that it was perfectly natural to look disadvantage and discrimination right in the eye and to triumph over it.

More than anyone else I have ever met, she demonstrated the capacity for forgiveness whilst never conceding defeat or making any concessions to those who would deny her or any human being their basic rights.

The volunteers and staff of the NSPCC gave her a lengthy standing ovation and she became a lifelong supporter. We named a child protection centre in East London after her. Why is she so relevant today? Because she was unafraid and spoke out when it was unfashionable to do so. She took risks in the sure belief that she was speaking to and on behalf of many. She built credibility and trust across many audiences, academics, politicians, philanthropists, and ordinary citizens who loved her way with words. Her great gift for the English language and for communicating across cultural barriers was instrumental in changing attitudes, public policy and educational practices and concepts of family of community.

I still remember her speech to the NSPCC in which she invented her own terminology. She talked about heroes and the way powerful female role models had shaped her life. She made me realize that in the words of George Bernard Shaw “it is possible to be learned and light” and that you can’t trap the human spirit.

She would have been interested in the WEA’s unique vision of education for a social purpose and would have asked the question is there really any other kind? She would have loved to meet many of our students and tutors and would have understood the vital importance of the personal and equal relationship that needs to exist between them. She would have celebrated with us the fact that we live in a multicultural society which flourishes through its diversity and would have been frustrated by the continuing waste of human talent which still exists in our society today.

As we launch our manifesto for change and our campaign messaging on the theme of women overcoming disadvantage there could be no more compelling example. Her teaching and writing, speaking and performing will remain with us for many years to come.