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.

Obituary – Eric Frith

Warm tributes are being paid to Eric Frith, a committed and active volunteer for the Workers’ Educational Association. Eric, who was the Chair of our Walthamstow Branch, died on Christmas Day at the age of 90.

Eric Frith

Eric Frith

Eric and his late wife Elise had wide-ranging interests and were very well-known in their community. They first started to organise courses at what is now the Adult Education Centre in Greenleaf Road, Walthamstow in the 1960s. Eric and Elise founded the Walthamstow branch of the WEA in 2005 to make sure that courses could still run at the Centre after the original service changed. He and his wife were over 80 years old when they took on this challenge.

He served as the Branch Chair and continued to do so after Elise died in 2010 at the age of 88. He chaired an active committee which meets regularly for typical WEA Branch activities such as planning and reviewing courses, approving finances, organising social and educational events and liaising with others in the WEA as well as partner organisations. Eric’s many interests included theatre, history and local developments. These were reflected in recent Branch visits to the Globe Theatre, the British Library and the National Theatre. 30 Branch members and friends also took a guided tour of the Olympic Park during its development and were able to see the velodrome, aquatics centre, the press centre and main stadium being built.

Walthamstow WEA colleague Joan Carder said: “Eric and Elise embodied the ideals of the WEA, and the Branch will not be the same without them”.

Eric was a keen campaigner for the protection of Epping Forest and the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow. He also supported drama productions across the area, preparing and playing music and sound effects for hundreds of performances.

Eric’s funeral will be held on Wednesday, January 16, at 11.45am at the City of London Crematorium.

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, 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 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.

Cathy and Sarah talk about family learning

WEA students Cathy Thomas and Sarah Nichols spoke at the launch of the Independent Inquiry into Family Learning last Friday.  NIACE organised the event on the theme of Forgotten Families: How learning in families contributes to a range of policy agendas.

Their tutor, Tracey Martin, and WEA Organiser, Trish Hollies, accompanied them as they joined the Princess Royal, members of the House of Lords, family learning practitioners, government department representatives and other adult students. I was also invited to speak about Family learning and its role in widening participation in adult learning.

There’s more information about the Inquiry at

Carol Taylor from NIACE interviewed Sarah, Cathy and Emily Fearn, another successful adult learner from Croydon, as part of the event. Their moving first hand accounts showed the impact of family learning.

(L-R) Emily Fearn, Carol Taylor, Cathy and Sarah practise for the formal interview session

Cathy and Sarah, who are both from Yorkshire, wrote their own pen portraits before the event:

Cathy in her own words

Cathy with her tutor, Tracey

I’m a 33-year-old, married mother of three. I left school at 17 after having my first child and thought that was the end of my academic history. After having another two children and doing some short courses to keep my mind busy I enrolled on a course with the WEA.

Shortly afterwards I did another WEA course with my son which was all about people realising their potential and entering Higher Education.I always thought Higher Education was out of my grasp but this course showed me that I could do it. I applied to do a Preparation for Higher Education course.

After gaining a distinction in this course I have now gone on to gain a first class honours degree in Childhood Studies at the University of Leeds and am on a waiting list to start my MA in Social Work.

Sarah in her own words

This is Sarah; Sarah is a 27-year-old mother of three. She lives in a three bedroom house on her local council estate with her partner and kids. She is severely dyslexic and also suffers with post natal depression.

Every morning at half past four her alarm goes off just in time to wake her partner and get him up and sorted in order to be at work for six to start his 12 hour shift. Then at 7 she wakes her children, gets her eldest boy (6) and her little girl (4) fed and dressed for school and her youngest son (14 months) ready for his day… either be spent with his grandma/friend/or respite at the local sure start centre.  She then gets herself ready to go volunteer  in school for the day.


This may seem like hard work but Sarah and her partner thrive off the hard working life as not so long ago their lives were mixed up in a world of unemployment, drugs and violent abuse.

Sarah and her partner met through their drug dependency. Her partner had started taking drugs at just 13, Sarah however had been introduced to them whilst at university studying towards her teaching degree. In her second year she became pregnant with her eldest son, and consequently had to give up on her dream of becoming a teacher and drop out of university.  After he was born her relationship broke down and she lost her job, she soon learnt to rely on drugs as a coping method.

During this period of time she met her current partner Adam who is the father to her two youngest children, their relationship has had its ups and downs as Sarah gave up drugs when she found she was pregnant but Adam never kicked the habit, they had to contend with constant arguments about money, a gambling addiction and then Adam began an affair with his drug dealer’s daughter.  Sarah could no longer cope and asked for help.  Subsequently her two children were placed on the ‘at risk’ register through Social Services.

Sarah then decided to get her life back on track, she found she was pregnant with her youngest son and decided as soon as he was born she would return to education.  She enrolled on a WEA course at her local Surestart Centre (Healthy Families) and the day her son was born her family was discharged from Social Services.

She continued her education with the WEA enrolling on another course – Practical Parent Helpers, after she went onto the WEA Volunteers Helping in Schools and Volunteers Helping with Special Educational Needs course. Through this she now volunteers sixteen hours a week within her local primary school and not only has she her own life back on track but it has given her partner the confidence and drive to go to work.  Sarah insists if it wasn’t for her local sure start centre and the WEA she would never have got to where she is today and neither would her family.

Making the most of their visit

Cathy, Tracey, Sarah and Trish celebrate their success

Sarah, Cathy, Tracey and Trish enjoyed their time in London, having had to travel from Yorkshire on Thursday for an early Friday start.

Ruth Spellman, the WEA’s General Secretary, met them on Thursday evening and they were able to do some walking and sightseeing between Southwark and Covent Garden. The wet weather didn’t dampen their enthusiasm.

Now that the Inquiry is underway, Commissioners want to hear more evidence about how family learning changes lives for adult students and their families.

Volunteers’ Week

It’s Volunteers’ Week from 1-7 June and the WEA is joining in the annual celebration organised by Volunteering England. It has been estimated that volunteers contribute approximately 84,000 hours per year to the WEA and Ruth Spellman, our Chief Executive, has paid tribute to WEA volunteers on our website at:

Margaret East, Chair of South Tyneside Branch

Ruth points out that volunteers contribute to the work of the WEA in a staggering variety of roles including: 

• Acting as Community Learning Champions to promote the value of adult learning, particularly in disadvantaged communities
• Acting as a conduit for feedback from students as Class Secretaries and Learner Representatives
• Arranging and promoting local courses through WEA branches
• Voluntary Education Advisers (VEAs) working on the WEA/ Unison Return to Learn courses.
• Running promotional and fundraising events
• Providing classroom support by helping with skills development such as literacy, language, numeracy and IT
• Supporting individuals with specific physical or learning difficulties
• Working in offices to help with administration and publicity
• Leading self-organised study circles
• Sitting on branch, regional and national committees, up to trustee level, in formal roles such as chairs, secretaries and treasurers. 

Friendly and supportive Voluntary Education Advisers on WEA / Unison Return to Learn courses

 I’d like to echo Ruth’s thanks to all our volunteers for their dedication, commitment and hard work. You make a big difference and the WEA couldn’t exist without you.

 I’d also like to encourage anyone thinking of volunteering. All these activities enable volunteers to develop their own skills and interests and can lead to long standing friendships, more active social participation and, for some volunteers, employment. If you are interested in developing your skills whilst supporting the work of the WEA then please get in touch via

Community Learning Champion, Stephanie, with Louise Williams

You can find out more about Volunteering England and Volunteers’ Week online at and people who use social media might want to join a Volunteers’ Week chat on Twitter between 1pm and 2pm on Friday 1 June to talk about all the great things that volunteers and volunteering bring to our communities. To take part all you need to do is follow #VW2012chat and add #VW2012chat to your tweets.

Many people don’t use Twitter so, if the last paragraph seems like a foreign language, you might like to share comments here about events or personal  experiences of volunteering with the WEA or its impact (and / or request a course in social media!).