Family Learning Works – invest now or pay later?

‘Family Learning Works’ was launched last Friday. The report makes recommendations and proposes actions based on 12 months of detailed research and analysis by the NIACE-led Independent Inquiry into Family Learning chaired by Baroness Valerie Howarth.

The report offers some affordable hope and practical solutions in the wake of the OECD’s recent PIAAC Report on levels of adult literacy and numeracy and the Parliamentary debate on these issues on 10 October. The PIAAC statistics and last week’s ‘State of the Nation 2013’ report by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission suggest grim prospects for too many adults – especially those furthest from decent employment and for their dependent children. These reports show why we need to act now to reduce the knock-on effects on our society, economy and future public spending to deal with the consequences of poor literacy, numeracy and confidence.

Young people who leave school with low levels of skills are not just be ill-prepared for employment but will be poorly equipped to provide their future children with vital learning support, perpetuating a chain of educational disadvantage through generations. We can’t let this continue and it makes so much sense to intervene across two generations at a time, helping adults to reach their own potential and to nurture their children’s education. This is good for the adults, good for the children, good for schools and good for society.

You can find a summary of the Family Learning Works report here, but here’s an at-a-glance taster to show some key points:


Family Learning is an important aspect of the WEA’s work. We know and can show that wanting better chances for their children is a strong motive for many adults to improve their own literacy and numeracy skills – with lasting benefits for both generations.

There’s been a consistent theme running through events that I’ve been involved in this week – the WEA’s Biennial Conference, a celebration of ESF Community Learning Grants and now the launch of Family Learning Works – and it’s that community and family learning are tried, tested and effective but insufficiently recognised ways of dealing with some deep-rooted problems in our communities and wider society.

Having been a Commissioner on the Inquiry into Family Learning, I share other Commissioners’ commitment to making report’s recommendations a reality. The report is completed but the work on implementation starts now. It’s a frustrating coincidence that a lead story on the WEA’s website on the day of the report’s launch reads that:

“The WEA is supporting the growing campaign against cuts to Children’s Centres in Oxfordshire. An article in the Sunday Times on Sunday 13th Oxford reported potentially radical closure of many centres that are key partners of the WEA….”

You can read more here.

We have to acknowledge that this situation is symptomatic of current pressures on public spending and on competing priorities. We also recognise and welcome recent interventions such as the Community Learning Innovation Fund and the setting up of pilot Community Learning Trusts as well as some protected funding for adult and community learning from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills via the Skills Funding Agency, albeit on a standstill basis for several years now.

Funding for family learning is not simply a handout or a one-way transaction. It offers a significant return for modest investment and its impact affects several government departments and policy agendas, although no department ‘owns’ it.

Can we afford not to support intergenerational learning and to foist the cost of poor adult literacy and numeracy levels as a legacy for our children and grandchildren with all the resulting social and economic costs? This question is surely to big to ignore.

Guest blog – Conference motion on Health and Wellbeing –

Lindy Gresswell, Chair of the WEA’s Yorkshire and Humber Region, has forwarded the text of a speech supporting one of the region’s motions to last weekend’s members’ Conference. She’s sharing this as a guest blog. Lindy is a WEA student and active volunteer. She says that fellow Regional Committee member Hugh Humphrey also helped to shape the text. It’s an example of how WEA members and volunteers contribute to the Association’s development and planning through our democratic processes.

Lindy Gresswell

Lindy Gresswell

“President, delegates; Lindy Gresswell Yorkshire and Humber Region

The WEA, by giving Health and Wellbeing its own separate theme obviously recognises the benefits of this type of education.  We are now asking the trustees to initiate a dedicated marketing campaign that will inform students of these benefits.

Learning and education can have a positive effect on wellbeing. This has been reflected in numerous research studies. The Coalition Government’s new mental health strategy recognises the link between learning and mental health.

Dr Andrew McCulloch, Chief Executive of the Mental Health Foundation says:

… learning interventions could form part of the solution for people who have less severe symptoms of mild or moderate depression and anxiety as well as for those who are already on the road to recovery.

 He suggests that: Primary Care Trusts and future GP consortia should, in cooperation with local authorities, consider commissioning such programmes.

The Foresight report also quotes, ‘Learning through life has direct impacts on the mental health and wellbeing of the UK population across all age groups.’

The benefits of adult education can also be seen in other areas.  From the publication, ‘The Contribution of Adult Learning to Health and Social Capital’ Leo Feinstein et al say that,

Participation in adult learning is a significant factor in positive processes of psychological and social development, ’and appears to have all the ingredients of confidence building and rising social awareness.

At present local authorities and colleges don’t appear to offer a great deal in this area and although there are all sorts of initiatives in the community these tend to be very ad hoc, often short lived  and not co-ordinated in any way. There is a real opportunity for us to ‘up our game’ and establish ourselves in this area.

There is also research that acknowledges the benefit of volunteering on health:

A report commissioned by Volunteering England suggests that the benefits of volunteering can include:  A longer life, a healthier lifestyle, Improved family relationships, Meeting new people, Improved self-esteem and sense of purpose.

It should be possible to put together a comprehensive WEA personal development programme which would lead on to people joining other WEA courses, volunteering or other activities.  One approach could be to establish three or four flagship courses and get these into every area of the country

Obviously, a group needs setting up to look at what we have got and develop a strategy. Once we are in position to deliver a number of key courses to all parts of the country, which includes having the right tutors available, then we can initiate the marketing campaign referred to in the motion.

There may well be initiatives afoot already but we do need to move on this quickly. It is an area we have been good at over a number of years but we have now created ourselves an opportunity to move up a gear.  It is essential that we do so.”

Conference delegates voted in support of the motion so expect to see further action on this topic for the benefit of students and communities.

Literacy and Numeracy: What MPs said

Adult literacy and numeracy had a much-needed moment in the Parliamentary spotlight last Thursday with a detailed debate. You can find background information and links to a video and transcript of the full discussion at:

Literacy and numeracy were also centre stage at the WEA’s biennial Conference, featuring in several sessions and in the presentation of the Olive Cordell Awards. Olive was a WEA community studies tutor who left a financial as well as an educational legacy to fund these awards, which her daughter Jane presented for the fifth year.

Jane handed Marie Leadbitter the Tutor of the Year Award for achievements in teaching Numeracy & Literacy and Sam Gowler the Learner of the Year Award for his progress in English and Maths. Sam’s story adds a very human dimension to the Parliamentary debate and Marie’s work shows how good teaching can help to solve the problems at the heart of the MPs’ discussion.

Sam Gowler

Sam Gowler

Sam decided to join two WEA courses in 2012 – one in English and one in maths – because he was tired of constant knock-backs. Since joining the courses Sam has worked tirelessly to learn the reading, writing and maths skills he needs so that he can improve his prospects of getting a job. These skills have made a big difference to his personal life as he now enjoys reading fiction, solving anagrams and taking part in quizzes. He has also trained for his Construction Skills (CS) card, using his improved skills to read and understand the necessary Health & Safety manuals. Now that he has achieved his CS card, together with his ever growing skills, expanding knowledge and increasing confidence, Sam is studying at his local college of Further Education and aims to move into work.

Sam’s courses at the Oasis Community Centre in Wisbech show that community partnership has a key role in supporting education. The WEA works alongside Community Centre staff and  the CP Learning Trust, so that adults learn the English and maths that are so important for all aspects of their lives. These partnerships are typical of collaborative working in neighbourhoods across the country and provide an essential support network for community learning.

Marie, who lives in Doncaster, is one of the community learning tutors who go the extra mile for and with their students. She first joined the WEA as a student to brush up on her computer skills and now she’s teaching maths in that same classroom. “I look at the chair I used to sit in and tell my students how far I’ve come.” She’s expert at supporting her students to succeed, no matter what barriers, they face and many of her students go on to volunteer in the classroom.

Marie is committed to continuing professional development, gaining numeracy and literacy subject specialisms, and is currently studying for her Level 4 Certificate in Quality Assurance and Higher Maths with the OU. She is passionate about education and a role model for her children. “I tell them ‘Aspire – study and enjoy your learning!”

We know the difference that good literacy and numeracy skills can make to people and we know that there’s a massive need for action. We have statistics and countless stories to show what works.

It’s encouraging that so many MPs understand how important this issue is. The big issue now will be what action follows the very welcome Parliamentary debate and what difference it will make to the millions of people who could have much better lives if they could improve their English and Maths skills.

Parliamentary Debate on Literacy and Numeracy

The Parliamentary Backbench Business Committee has decided that the backbench business for Thursday 10th October will include a debate on a motion about improving levels of adult literacy and numeracy. The Members in charge are Caroline Dineage, Gordon Birtwistle and Robin Walker.

The motion to be debated is:

“That this House: recognises that with 1 in 6 adults functionally illiterate, Britain’s skills gap is preventing this country from fully realising our economic potential; understands that improved literacy rates not only have economic benefits but also have positive effects on an individual’s self-confidence, aspirations and emotional health and well-being; notes that literacy rates for school leavers have shown little change in spite of initiatives introduced by successive Governments over recent decades; understands that the social stigma attached to illiteracy and innumeracy often prevents adults from seeking the help they need, which means that signposting illiterate and innumerate adults to further education colleges is not always the most effective course of action; recognises that literacy and numeracy programmes must be made easily accessible to the most hard-to-reach functionally illiterate and innumerate adults if valued progress is to be made; and calls on the Government to renew efforts to provide imaginative, targeted and accessible support to illiterate and innumerate adults.”

It’s worth reading the transcripts from the Committee’s meeting on 10th September where these items were discussed before deciding on this Thursday’s debate.

You can see the MPs’ informed comments and exchanges if you scroll down the page at

The WEA welcomes this debate very warmly and looks forward to the MPs’ further discussion and active support for these issues. We’ll be following the debate with great interest and will continue to campaign with others on the important matters of adult literacy and numeracy.

What would you add to the MPs’ debate?

Knud Illeris and learning theorists… in their own words

Knud Illeris, the Danish educational theorist and professor of lifelong learning, has a reputation that earns him a place in the Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame. I found this link to a wonderful and completely free online publication on contemporary theories of learning, edited by the man himself, so this is more of a link than a blog.

Contemporary Theories of Learning – Learning Theorists… in their own words

Illeris’s most noted contributions as an educational thinker have been about how adults learn and continue to do so. He explains what he calls, ‘A comprehensive understanding of human learning’ in Chapter 1 of the book.

Knud Illeris

Knud Illeris

As well as Illeris, the ‘who’s who’ of modern theorists who have contributed articles about their own work includes Peter Jarvis, Robert Egan, Yrjo Engestrom, Benet Elkjaer, Jack Mezirow, Howard Gardner, Peter Alheit, John Heron, Mark Tennant, Jerome Bruner, Robert Usher, Thomas Ziehe, Jean Lave, Etienne Wenger, Danny Wildemeersch and Veerle Stroobants.

It’s good to find such a rich range of resources so freely available for those who are interested.

Any thoughts on their writing or links to other similar resources?

Digital literacy – essential or desirable?

There’s no question that adult educators need basic literacy and little doubt that information literacy – knowing how to research, find, assess, use and manage information – is a fundamental aspect of teaching and learning.

What about digital literacy? There are various aspects, sliding and evolving scales of digital literacy, so what is a reasonable minimum expectation for proficiency in 2013?

Should adult educators be expected to communicate by email and social media and research via the internet? Should we know how to find, evaluate and create information using digital technology and to use digital applications to enrich our teaching and professional development? In other words, what is essential and what is desirable?

A Twitter discussion last night using the hashtag #ukfechat has prompted this blog. The timing coincides with the forthcoming launch of a new WEA Tutor Portal for us to share and update key course administration tasks and information electronically.

During the Twitter discussion, Sarah Simons commented, “Think there’s group of people pretending digital age isn’t happening & other group perhaps overplaying essentiality?”

diglit mrs ss

We can all probably identify someone at each end of this spectrum, with most people being somewhere between the extremes, but we’re also aware of the increasing pace of public services becoming digital by default. People who are unable to use email and the internet are at risk of being excluded from activities and services. Carol Azumah Dennis’s tweet reinforced this.

Diglit dbd1

Many adult educators are creative and proficient users of technology but others might benefit from support in developing their skills, not just for their work but for life in general. Could Bob Harrison’s suggestion of digitally literate students acting as technology mentors for their tutors be worth exploring further?

ukfechat dbd2

It’s a model that chimes with the WEA’s approach to relationships between tutors and students and with our Digital Activists’ Inclusion Network (DAIN) in the East Midlands.

Thanks to Sarah Simons for facilitating the Twitter chat and sparking a productive exchange.

What do you think?

(Twitter users can follow last night’s conversations using the hashtag #ukfechat)

Learning from history

What has the First World War got to do with our lives today?

This was the basis of a thought-provoking day of learning and discussion organised by the WEA’s Harrogate Branch yesterday. It was a curtain-raiser for courses that the volunteer-led Branch has planned for the autumn term.

Flyer for the event

Flyer for the event

Sue McGeever, a family history student, brought the subject to life with a fascinating account of women’s contributions to the war effort. Her research had led her to find out more about women who had volunteered with the YMCA to run recreational and welfare facilities and tuck shops for troops on the Western Front.

Sue had unearthed letters and photographs describing the women’s experiences. She made them very real and relevant to contemporary life. Her story of Betty Stevenson from Harrogate was especially poignant and it was hard to believe that this was Sue’s first public presentation. An account of Betty Stevenson’s life is available here.

Henry Irving adopted a different approach to the subject, looking at historical legacies of the war almost a hundred years after it began. He asked us to note and share what we knew about the war and why it was important. Comparisons with the current situation in Syria were almost inevitable. Amongst other intriguing points, he revealed that only 9% of respondents to a survey could name accurately the British Prime Minister who was in office at the start of hostilities. We were left wondering who would remember the details of current politicians’ attitudes to the Middle East and what future generations will conclude when the present time fades into history.

Henry has blogged about teaching history for social purpose. You can read some of his blogs here.

Andrew Hamilton’s session, based on his grandfather’s first-hand diary record of trench warfare and the Christmas truce of 1914, raised all sorts of issues about the complex relationships between soldiers who were capable of a nervous truce in the middle of a brutal conflict where they found themselves on opposing sides. Comparing the bravery of soldiers who saw active service with others who were imprisoned for their beliefs as conscientious objectors added another dimension. There’s more information on Andrew’s 2009 book about his grandfather’s experiences here.

Front cover of Andrew Hamilton's book

Front cover of Andrew Hamilton’s book

Wider discussions ranged from the legacy of domestic violence prompted by shell shock and ingrained in family behaviours in subsequent generations to depictions of the historical period in art, literature and general culture. Forthcoming courses will pick up on some of these themes.

With a visit from the local MP, Andrew Jones, a presentation from Sam Findlay describing resources available in Harrogate Library, displays of students’ work and plenty of tea, coffee and food, this was an imaginative and stimulating start to Harrogate Branch’s 2013-14 programme. It was good to see several tutors supporting the day’s events and being on hand to answer questions about their courses.

It was planned as a drop-in event so the organisers should be very pleased by the number of people who took part and stayed for the full day. It was a practical example of how exploration of a single theme can lead in many different directions for learning and a reminder of the Latin etymology of the word education – “e ducere”, meaning, “to lead out”.

Time for the ad in adult learning?

It’s September and a new year for education.

Adverts show eager, well-scrubbed children in their new school uniforms (possibly made by somewhat less bright-eyed children in overseas sweatshops). Displays of cheap crockery, pans and bedding in supermarkets and a fresh Ikea commercial are a sign that university students are kitting out their new accommodation.

Part-time adult and community learning doesn’t usually generate a need for specific clothing or relocation. Convenience and accessibility are part of its ethos. This means that there’s no major commercial tie-in for advertisers to promote.

We have to make our own fanfare and we need to be much better at it as a sector to counter the decline in adult learner numbers in recent years.

The WEA and other adult education organisations have countless amazing stories about how adult and community learning has changed students’ lives. Sometimes it’s had a knock-on effect on their families and even on their communities. We need to convince more people about the possibilities and the point of adult education to encourage them into their first class. (#firstclass Twitter hashtag anyone?)

We need to get those messages out, loud and clear, so that many more people sign up for adult education courses this September. There are many opportunities and choices with the WEA ( and with other organisations.

It’s not just a month when children can start a new phase of their learning.

10 blogs about adult education

There are many excellent blogs about education. Most of those that I’ve come across focus on teaching, learning and leadership in schools and there’s a lot to learn from them, but it’s good to find some that focus specifically on adult education, including part-time adult and community learning.

You can find a list of sample blogs from WEA colleagues in the right hand side bar of this blog if you scroll down the page on full screen versions or at the end of the text on smartphone formats. Some of the blogs are more active than others and they represent different aspects of our work – from tutor and branch blogs to payroll support. Many are informal but ‘weaadulted‘ is Ruth Spellman’s official blog as our CEO.

Here are links to 10 other interesting blogs that are relevant to adult education. They’re listed in alphabetical order of their authors and are all UK-focused unless stated otherwise.

  1. The Learning Professor – John Field is an academic interested in lifelong learning.
  2. Education Post 2015 ICAE – The International Council for Adult Education.
  3. Stuffaliknows – Alison Iredale is a teacher educator working at Oldham College as Centre Manager for the PGCE / CertEd (Lifelong Learning).
  4. JISC Regional Support Centres – (formerly Joint Information Systems Committee) Supports the use of digital technologies in UK education and research.
  5. teachnorthern – Lou Mycroft is a teacher educator, working at The Northern College, Barnsley. This blog links to a ‘Community of Praxis’ and ‘Teachdifferent’.
  6. More, Different, Better – A multi-authored blog from NIACE, the National Institute of Adult and Continuing Education.
  7. Working in Adult Literacy – Kate Nonesuch has worked in adult literacy and numeracy for more than twenty-five years, most of that time at Vancouver Island University. (Canadian).
  8. Sam Shepherd’s Blog – Sam is an ESOL tutor and teacher trainer.
  9. The Learning Age – Paul Stanistreet is a journalist who edits Adults Learning, a quarterly magazine for people working in adult education.
  10. Union Learning Voices – The unionlearn blog.

I’ll write a future post listing more blogs about education that are relevant to adult educators but not written directly from, or for, the sector.

Apologies if I’ve missed your personal blog or your favourite adult education blog. Please let me know. I’d appreciate your comments, suggestions and additions.


The following blogs have also been recommended via comments on Twitter:

Carol Goody – Carol is an Adult Literacies & ESOL Worker in Community Learning and Development with a local authority in Scotland.

Improvisation Blog by Mark Johnson, suggested by Alison Iredale. by Dr Carol Azumah Dennis, a researcher, writer & teacher.

I’ll add more if people send me links.

10 quick lessons from educational thinkers

Praxis, the combination of theory, reflection and practice is precious – as in ‘valuable’ – but it’s not something to be precious or pretentious about. Educational theory is of real use when we reflect on it and apply it in practice. The list below features 10 quick lessons drawn from some of the people featured so far in this blog’s ‘Educational Thinkers’ Hall of Fame’.

Number 10 is specifically about the WEA but has wider application in adult education.

  1. Socrates – Active learning through questioning and discovery leads to deeper understanding of a subject.
  2. Mary Wollstonecraft – Prejudice leads to ill-informed and unfair assumptions about people’s academic potential.
  3. John Dewey – Previous experiences of life and education shape individual students’ personal responses to learning activities.
  4. Benjamin Bloom – Learning can take place at many levels ranging from ‘rote’ learning to active creativity.
  5. Paolo Freire – Education shouldn’t be based on a ‘banking’ system that attempts to deposit knowledge in students’ minds.
  6. Robert Gagne – ‘Teachers have three primary functions: to be a designer, manager and evaluator of learning.’
  7. Jack Mezirow – Transformative education has the potential to set people free from their limitations.
  8. Carol Dweck – The language we use as educators can reinforce the development of ‘fixed mindsets’ or ‘growth mindsets’
  9. John Hattie – Teacher credibility is important in promoting ‘visible learning’ through feedback about students’ progress.
  10. R H Tawney – The purpose of the association [the WEA] is to provide for men and women who want to take their bearings on the world, opportunities of co-operative study, in congenial company, with a leader who knows enough of his (or her) business to be not only a leader but a fellow student.

This blog complements others that I follow, including Pete Caldwell’s at and several others. I’ll list a few in the next blog.

What snippets would you have chosen from any of these or other thinkers to inform practice in adult education?