Inclusion, sport and a manifesto for adult education

Award-winning sportspeople have had a big impact in the WEA this week.

One of Great Britain’s most successful Paralympians, Tanni Grey-Thompson, gave the WEA’s Annual Lecture on 11 June at Birkbeck University. She seemed disarmingly easy-going as she packed several powerful political points into her speech, talking with unpretentious warmth and wit.

Tanni Grey-Thompson and Ruth Spellman

Tanni Grey-Thompson and Ruth Spellman

She recalled her response to being told as a young woman that her wheelchair was a fire risk in a public building: “I’ve never spontaneously combusted before.” Her anecdotes about being a traveller in a wheelchair were shocking and absurd in equal measure. Her response? “I don’t want special treatment, just the same miserable commute as everyone else.”

Tanni’s commitment to politics for social good and to education as an enabler shone through. This was a very appropriate context for Ruth Spellman, our CEO and General Secretary, to launch the WEA’s Manifesto – “Making a difference to communities throughout the UK”.

The Manifesto includes nine key recommendations:

1. Ensure there is always an opportunity for adults to return to learning
2. Promote equality, opportunity and productivity at work
3. Develop educational opportunities for the most disadvantaged
4. Help people stay active throughout life through health education
5. Reduce health inequalities to give people more control over their own wellbeing
6. Promote tolerance and inclusion through access to English
7. Value lifelong learning so adults of any age can study
8. Help parents become educational role models
9. Value volunteering through a single credible set of measurements

While Tanni was talking in London, members of the Bumble Bees Barbarians mixed ability rugby team were appearing on the BBC’s  Look North regional news programme as it was broadcast from Leeds.

Bumbles_LookNorth

Harry Gration, Amy Garcia, Anthony Brooke, Leon Taylor, Dan Cookson, Martino Corazza. (Photo by Joseph Haskey, WEA)

The Bingley-based Bumble Bees have been awarded the prestigious Rugby Football Union President’s Award for their innovative mixed ability approach to the game and for using rugby as a vehicle for social change. The WEA hasn’t moved into sports management but is working in partnership with the players to promote inclusion and to challenge stereotypes about disability.

WEA tutor Mark Goodwin has worked with the players since a student on another WEA course asked about setting up a rugby team. The educational aspects of the partnership have enabled players with Learning Disabilities to develop skills for describing and presenting their experiences in sport to RFU clubs so that neighbouring teams can get over their “fear factor” of playing against disabled players and mixed ability teams.

The Bumbles have gained in confidence, become accomplished public speakers and taught others about diversity and inclusion. It’s been a win-win process and we’ve all learnt a lot.

Tanni Grey-Thompson said in her lecture that, “If you’re told constantly that you can’t do things you might start to believe it.” She and the Bumbles show what’s possible when people believe that they can do things, but they don’t sugar-coat their messages.

Democracy and voice

We sang at the WEA’s Yorkshire & Humber Region AGM in Leeds today. You don’t get that kind of exuberance in most shareholders’ meetings.

The (fully booked) get-together before the business part of the meeting focused on ‘Democracy, Active Citizenship and the Role of Voice’.  Prof. Stephen Coleman set the scene very engagingly in his William Alderson Memorial Trust Lecture on this theme.

Prof. Stephen Coleman

Prof. Coleman got our attention straight away, saying that, “Voice is the foundation technology of democracy but not all voices are equal.” In a rousing performance, he talked of the need for all sorts of voices that are, “confident, unbound and efficacious”. Quoting from John Milton and Edmund Burke, he went on to describe, “an entire history of disrespect built on prejudice”, with a “spurious connection” between people’s style of pronunciation and their authority to speak.  He warned that we shouldn’t mistake sullen and silent anger in society for civic contentment. Identifying 6 civic capabilities, he showed excerpts from a website at www.youthamplified.com, which he urged people to explore.

Various examples of  ‘WEA Experiences’ followed his lecture. These were impressive in showing how students and volunteers had gained confidence and found voices with the WEA.

Students from an Asian Women’s Sewing Group showed their skills in a stunning fashion show. The soundtrack encouraged some impromptu Gangnam Style moves from several people as well as nods of admiration and enthusiastic applause. The women from Crosland Moor also won the Learning Group of the Year award and were full of praise for Judith Boardman, their ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) Tutor.

Award winners’ acceptance speech

In a change of pace and tone, we watched a short film that WEA students with experience of homelessness had made. They described some changes that they would make to Doncaster if they had a million pounds to spend. The film was an excellent practical illustration of people speaking about what’s important to them in their community.

Mark Goodwin and the Bumble Bee Barbarians then had us spellbound as they talked about the triumphs and impact of mixed ability rugby and the creative training that the WEA is building around the sport. Students with a learning difficulty or disability gave a presentation that was both moving and funny. They challenged several stereotypes and managed to make some serious messages entertaining.

They showed how they are tackling inequality, in a very literal way, and finding their voices.

Mark Goodwin (R) & some Bumble Bee Barbarians

Rob Hindle, Nicola Thorpe and Victoria Beauchamp’s presentation about Digability, a WEA Community Archaeology Project, was another example of inclusion that builds on people’s interests. They showed clips from a film about the project. This is available at http://youtu.be/rccUF2VuhA0. They emphasised how important it is for organisations to work together and the key role of volunteers like Beth Deakin.

Beth Deakin, Volunteer of the Year

Lindy Gresswell, Yorkshire and Humber Region’s Chair, presented regional awards to even more applause.

As well as the people mentioned already, Lindy presented certificates to:

  • Julie Harrison – Nominated for WEA Student of the Year
  • Jill Iles – Nominated for Special recognition award: Education
  • Janet Driver – Nominated for Special recognition award: Administration and support services
  • Ron Moreton – Nominated for Special recognition: Long Service Award
  • Open Door Hate and Mate Crime Group – Nominated for Most Innovative Partnership Activity

Energy levels were kept high by the WEA’s ‘Easingwold Sings’ Choir. Some of us thought we might be sitting back to be entertained – which we were – but taking part is in the WEA’s DNA so we had a quick singing lesson and found our voices quite harmoniously.

‘Easingwold Sings’ Choir

The high spirits and sense of communal activity were an excellent curtain raiser for the business part of the meeting.