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

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