Remembering Rex Russell

Rex Russell, a founding father of the WEA in North Lincolnshire, passed away yesterday aged 98. He has been described as one of the Association’s ‘greats’ who worked with some of the educational pioneers in adult learning from the early twentieth century.

Rex Russell and Ann Walker at the WEA Nettleton Branch's 50th Anniversary in 2005

Rex Russell and Ann Walker at the WEA Nettleton Branch’s 50th Anniversary in 2005

Rex was someone who made an impression. He had a compelling presence at events well after his ninetieth birthday, being erudite and witty as well as very knowledgeable. He was a prolific author, prodigious researcher and charismatic educator who encouraged many students in his role as Tutor Organiser.

This extract from the WEA Yorkshire and Humber Region’s 2009-10 Annual Review gives a flavour of Rex’s character and contribution.

Rex Russell

Rex’s funeral is on 30th December at Scunthorpe Crematorium at 12.40 pm.

Parliament Week and practical political education


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It’s Parliament Week. What do you think about practical political education?

The polls in the Rochester and Strood by-election are due to close at 10pm tonight but the comment and opinion will go on for days. Russell Brand is urging people not to vote. The Scots are more engaged in democratic processes now than at any other time in living memory.

Do politics leave you cold, bored, annoyed, interested or motivated to get involved? The WEA believes in education for an active and inclusive democracy within society  – and within our own organisation – and encourages people to explore these issues.

Political education doesn’t have a very high profile and yet it can have a big impact on our ability to shape the policies that affect every aspect of our lives. Too many people don’t understand how complex political systems work and think their votes and involvement don’t make a difference. Are they right? How can we make sure that decision makers in Parliament and in local government are more truly representative of the communities they serve?

The WEA supports Parliament Week and is a member of the Democracy Matters alliance.

Our new one-day ‘Politics for Outsiders’ courses in the Eastern Region of England are designed to share ideas and discover the difference that politics can make. They will also give opportunities to think about how to engage others in making more of their democratic power in achieving vital social goals. The day schools are a joint initiative between the WEA and the Question the Powerful project and will be tutored by Dr. Henry Tam who is Director of the Forum for Youth Participation & Democracy at University of Cambridge. (For more information see Henry Tam: Words & Politics: http://hbtam.blogspot.co.uk/ ). There has been a lot of positive feedback about his contribution to the WEA Eastern Region’s AGM on the subject of, “‘What has politics ever done for us?”

You can find out more about ‘Politics for Outsiders’ here.

Any other links to practical political education to celebrate Parliament Week?

Learning from the past and shaping the future

Successful adult educators and students learn from the past, embrace change with enthusiasm and adapt to new ideas and circumstances. At best they innovate and lead development. The current round of Annual General Meetings in the WEA brings these activities to life as we reflect on the 2013-14 academic year and share plans for this year and beyond.

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As an educational organisation with more than 110 years of history, we can look back on a proud tradition and core values that keep bringing us back to our abiding vision, values and purpose.

We want to make sure that our educational movement is as relevant to future generations as it has been in the past.

Our recent AGMs and get-togethers have been upbeat with a sense that we are refreshing our democracy and looking to the future with even more resolve to improve people’s lives through adult education that challenges and inspires.

WEA NE Banner

The WEA North Eastern Region’s banner

The WEA North East Region’s Annual General Meeting, 15 November 2014

The banner on display at the North East Region’s AGM captures some of the WEA’s spirit. It’s made from traditional silks and patterns but includes 21st century images from the Region. Campaigning for adult education – the right to learn – is at its centre.

Moira Riseborough, Ian Roberts, Russell Porteous and Michael Crilly, who are voluntary Regional Officers and a Trustee, steered us through the usual AGM formalities. Students, tutors, volunteers, members of governance and management and friends from partner organisations all took an active part in the meeting, focusing on the present and very recent past, with some stories of notable practice in teaching, learning and volunteering.

Greg Coyne, the Regional Director, brought the Annual Report to life by using the example of a gardening course taught by Amelia Luffrun. Amelia had encouraged students to stretch their learning beyond practical gardening skills to think about wider environmental issues and sustainability. The students had gone on to enrich their experience by sharing some of their new-found skills with men attending the Day Centre at St Clare’s Hospice in South Shields. The students taught the Centre users how to make bird-feeders from recycled materials.

“Giving something back”, is a theme that we often hear from students who become involved in voluntary activities as a result of their learning.

Greg Coyne's final comments on the gardening course in South Shields

Greg Coyne’s final comments on the gardening course in South Shields

The Right Reverend Martin Wharton, the former Bishop of Newcastle, spoke from the heart at the meeting. He described his own experiences as an adult learner, acknowledging a debt to the WEA that surprised those of us who didn’t know his background. He spoke about how he had left school with few qualifications, but  took up part-time study with the WEA as a mature student. He built on this learning and went on to gain a degree at Durham University before training for the ministry at Oxford. His story is one of countless examples from the WEA’s history, but progression to become a Bishop is a one-off student outcome – as far as we know!

We celebrated Kath Connolly and Grant Crichton’s achievements as worthy winners of WEA Awards before a session on the WEA Manifesto and some lively group discussions looking to the future and sharing ideas to develop and support our:

  • tutors;
  • branches;
  • sustainability.

Nigel Todd, a WEA Ambassador and Regional Committee member, shared this cartoon. It was a good stimulus for discussion in the group who concentrated on sustainability.

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The groups came up with specific ideas for action, so we ended the meeting with a focus on the future after we had celebrated the past.

P.S. We love a bit of rousing singing in the WEA.

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The North East Socialist Choir

WEA Awards 2014

The WEA celebrated achievements by students, volunteers, tutors and other staff from all over England and Scotland with an uplifting awards ceremony in Birmingham on 12 November.

ConfinactionYou can read more on the WEA’s website here and read a round up of tweets from the event here.

Congratulations to all award winners.

Adult education, singing, health and wellbeing

Howard Croft, WEA Projects Development Manager, has shared this link to a 6-minute film highlighting key outcomes and impact from a successful ‘Singing for Wellbeing’ project in the West Midlands region.

This research project explored the impact of adult education singing classes on people’s health and wellbeing.

 

This was a 12-month research project led by the WEA and run in partnership with University of Oxford. It was supported by the Rayne Foundation and Skills Funding Agency (SFA).

As well as individual students’ comments, the film includes the following statistics:

  • 87% of research participants reported improved mental health as a result of taking part in WEA singing courses.
  • 90% reported increased feelings of social inclusion or belonging.
  • 68% reported a desire to attend more adult education classes.
  • 92% reported increased levels of confidence.
  • 60% reported improved physical health.

singing logos

 

Health and Wellbeing is one of the WEA’s four educational themes. The others are: Employability, Community Engagement and Culture.

Training accounts and tax relief for learning

A Guardian article this week explored the question, “Funding cuts, policy changes and careers advice: how are colleges faring

The article featured a response from Ruth Spelman:

“We want to start adult learning accounts, to which individuals, employers and individuals could contribute,” explains Ruth Spellman, chief executive of the Workers’ Educational Association. “Getting [adult learners] started is often the most difficult bit so it’s resource intensive.” Given that specialist adult providers need to invest so much upfront to boost confidence and help people overcome false starts, having some certainty that they can actually afford a course – both for the college and the individual involved – is vital to ensure older learners feel able to take advantage of educational opportunities.

Ruth is highlighting one of the issues raised in the WEA’s Manifesto as its second recommendation:

Manifesto rec 2

The WEA calls on employers and the government to help people into work and once there to encourage skills development through training accounts and tax relief for learning. The WEA also calls on central and local government and public agencies to ensure that procurement activities reduce in-work poverty through the promotion of the Living Wage.

This is a summary reminder of all the recommendations in the WEA Manifesto:

manifestrecs

You can download the Manifesto here or read it online in issuu format here.

New chapters for adult literacy

Being able to read fluently is much more than a ‘functional’ skill, essential as it is for employability, health, democracy and everyday life.

As avid readers ourselves, Ruth Spellman and I really enjoyed getting together with Cathy Rentzenbrink ‎and Jo Dawson of Quick Reads this week. We met to explore how WEA students could benefit from their short books. Big name authors have written them and they are designed to be easy to read. We ended up wanting to read some of them ourselves – because they are appealing and not because we think they might be ‘good for us’.

Hopefully the days when adults learnt to read or improve their understanding of written English using ‘Janet and John’-type children’s books are long gone and there are many imaginative adult literacy programmes and resources. As Sam Shepherd reminds us in his blog here, ESOL students might have studied to a high academic level in their first language. Adults should have learning resources that respect their maturity and don’t patronise them.

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Cathy and Jo promote Quick Reads with a gusto that comes from an obvious love of their work. It’s a mission for them. Cathy captured the mood of our discussion when she said, “We don’t want to suck the joy out of reading.”

For Cathy and Jo – and the WEA – books are part of a rich mix of experience that shapes people’s lives. A lack of accessible books – and art, music, drama and humanities education – can make ‘culture’ exclusive but it is an important part of education and one of the WEA’s four educational themes. (The others are employability, health and wellbeing and community engagement.) Books trigger all sorts of feelings and can help us to experience life in other places, times and cultures. They let us see the world from other people’s points of view and enrich our experience.

Spreading a message about the delight of getting engrossed in a good book is a positive way of encouraging some reticent readers to improve their literacy skills. Popularising reading for entertainment as a regular part of life is a good way of hooking people to become book lovers. Television’s Richard and Judy have introduced many people to contemporary fiction through their Book Club and it’s interesting to see that BBC Radio 2 has a book club too.

The Quick Read books and the Reading Agency’s Six Book Challenge can be used to enhance ESOL or adult literacy courses to improve reading skills. They can also be used as the basis of book clubs that can include people who are building up their confidence in reading. Group discussion of a book gives readers a chance to practise self-expression and to exchange views. They can learn the important messages that readers interpret books in different ways and that it’s OK not to like a book, even if it’s written by a well-known author.

Adults developing their expertise and self-assurance though reading books that grip them can apply their improving skills in work, community and family settings. They can also learn about other people’s lives and thoughts to broaden their own understanding.

Book

 

Do you use Quick Reads or the Six Book Challenge in adult education? Have you read any or taken part in the challenge? It would be good to hear your views.

Catching up on adult education news

Getting back into adult education networks after the summer? These links might help in catching up on some useful reading to get back in the groove again.

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  • Brian Creese’s contribution to the Institute of Education’s blog, “Adult education: a fundamental good”, is an excellent read. Read it here.
  • Writing on the DEMOS blog, Neil Stevenson argues that ESOL policy needs a re-think. Read it here. The Independent has a commentary on the DEMOS report here.
  • Adult Learners’ Week award winner, Amy King, is becoming an active social media advocate for adult education, tweeting as @GlamChem. You can watch and be inspired by a short film about her here.
  • GCSEs, Class and Inequality are the themes of Paul Stanistreet’s blog here.
  • Research by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills finds that, “Family learning is good for improving adult language and maths skills, but also has a wider impact.” Read BIS research paper 108 here.
  • A recent book by Frank Coffield, Cristina Costa, Walter Müller and John Webber introduces the term Bulimia Academia. You can find out more about the book, “Beyond Bulimic Learning – Improving teaching in further education” here.
  • Finally, in case you missed the WEA Manifesto or want to read it again, you can find the link here.

Any thoughts on issues covered in these links or suggestions of other news we might have missed?

Learning from crime fiction – means, motive and opportunity

Most readers of crime fiction and viewers of detective dramas know about the concepts of means, motive and opportunity that the writers use to establish criminals’ guilt. The MMO checklist is memorable and highly relevant to adult and community learning as well. MMO Understanding that adults need the means, motive and opportunity to benefit from education can help us to engage people into relevant courses in their communities. It’s not enough to provide courses and hope that people will turn up and join them or to set up digital learning activities and hope that people will find them.

Local resources and specialist tuition led to success for these WEA students interested in digital media.

Local resources and specialist tuition led to success for these WEA students who wanted to learn about digital media.

Do people have the means: the money for fees, equipment, bus fares, tea and coffee breaks, the initial skills, digital literacy, internet access, childcare….?

What might give them a motive to learn? Is it the real prospect of a proper job, better chances for their children, improving their health, gaining confidence, meeting new people, learning more about an interest, campaigning for something…..?

The flip side of this is just as important: “What type of learning demotivates someone?”

Is there an accessible opportunity to learn? Where can people go to learn? How will they know where to go and what’s available? Are there community networks, role models and venues where people feel secure? Is there access to digital learning with appropriate support?

Too many people will remain “hard to reach” unless policy makers and planners of adult and community learning try to understand the concepts of means, motive and opportunity.

Of course, engagement is only part of successful adult education. Once we have hooked people by negotiating the MMO, we have to make sure we move on to another three-letter acronym – with top quality TLA: teaching, learning and assessment.

Informal and non-formal learning: a smart investment

This article was first published in the current edition of NIACE’s Adults Learning journal. It’s a bumper edition and well worth reading for news and opinions about different aspects of adult education.

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Everyone learns throughout their life but everyone has their own personal experience of learning. The most badly off people in our society are very often the people who have benefitted the least from formal education.

Research shows that less formal learning can be a key for adults to improve their health and wellbeing, confidence, self-esteem, relationships in their communities and readiness for work. Access to good quality informal and non-formal learning is a powerful tool to address various types of inequality. It contributes to society by reducing pressure on other support services. It makes economic sense and is a matter of social justice.

A ‘one size fits all’ model of linear educational progression through childhood, adolescence and young adulthood is not enough to support a population with longer average life expectancy. Adults need to adjust to technological, social and economic change. Formal education is not enough to deal with skills gaps in adult literacy and numeracy and the impact of poverty on individuals, families and communities. It is not enough to create a vibrant national culture of lifelong learning and an active democracy. We need flexible, negotiable, high quality, locally accessible and affordable options for adult learning.

Formal education or ‘more school’ is a daunting prospect for people who feel alienated from learning. Many messages reinforce their anxiety and deter them from education. Ideas such as punishing parents who have poor literacy levels for not reading to their own children add insult to injustice and perpetuate educational inequality. We need the alternative, complementary and proven models that community and family learning can provide.

People who are labelled as ‘hard to reach’ often see formal education as hard to enter and pointless for them. Community networks can create supported pathways to make sure that no-one is written off without chances to return to learning. Research into the wider benefits of community learning shows that it improves the lives of people who might otherwise be excluded from education, including people who have not been in recent employment, education or training, people with disabilities, ex-offenders and people from marginalised groups. It can also top up education for people who have learnt successfully in the past.

WEA students learning together

WEA students learning together

A non-formal approach in a compassionate, negotiated learning environment can – and does – lead hesitant adults back into more formal education by building their confidence, self-belief and motivation. Such approaches are especially important at a time when people have difficulty in finding secure and sustainable jobs, when there are concerns about health inequalities and when portrayals of extremism threaten community cohesion.

The potency of informal and non-formal learning can be overlooked in policy debates on education.

In practice there is a spectrum of learning activity from the informal to the formal, with individual learning pathways. Non-formal and informal community learning are essential parts of the mix and complement formal schooling, further education, higher education and training.  Community learning’s agility and responsiveness can provide links between the different educational sectors and also between many policy areas, agencies and the communities that they serve. Informal and non-formal adult learning can create local solutions to neighbourhood problems and can introduce people into taking a full and positive role in their community.

Community education and family learning contribute to a learning society that spans different generations. The recent Family Learning Works report arising from a NIACE-led Inquiry into Family Learning provides powerful evidence of intergenerational learning’s impact. Parents, carers and grandparents who are active learners improve school children’s attainment, while non-formal learning also helps people to remain more active and independent into old age. Impact research from Community Learning Trusts, projects supported by the Community Learning Innovation Fund and the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) provides statistical evidence to back up many individual case studies and stories of achievement.

Many of those who work in non-formal and community learning are skilled at seeing connections, linking the curriculum to community priorities and interests, linking learners to opportunities for progression, linking volunteers to local activities, linking partners who can make things happen by working together and linking adult learning to policy areas such health, justice, employment, arts, communities, local government, culture and the media.

WEA Manifesto

WEA Manifesto

Community learning is a diverse sector. Organisations of all sizes, including many in the third sector and trade unions, offer informal and non-formal education. The Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) and other adult learning organisations locate their work in the wider policy, social and economic environment, as shown in a separate, complementary manifesto that the WEA has launched. It makes nine specific recommendations to promote connections between different types of learning and policy areas, including:

  • Auto-enrolling workers at all levels into ‘Training and Development Accounts’
  • Making the Living Wage and universal training and development minimum requirements in all public sector contract procurement and tender specifications (including subcontractors)
  • Requiring Health & Wellbeing Boards to include health education in their strategic plans to reduce health inequality
  • Introducing education/training vouchers for parents in receipt of child benefit when their first child starts Year 7
  • A Minister with lead responsibility for family learning in England
  • A requirement that  all universities, colleges and schools publish Community Access Policies to make education assets and infrastructure accessible through partnerships to all adults

The cost-benefits of community learning are substantial for a relatively modest investment. The NIACE and WEA manifestos are timely.

Ann Walker,

Director for Education, WEA