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.

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

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Lessons will be learnt…..democracy and political education

Last week included the International Day of Democracy and the dramatic climax of Scotland’s independence referendum. Education for citizenship, democracy and social justice has never been more relevant as politicians, commentators and the public rake over recent events and the implications for the future of Scotland, England and the United Kingdom.

Three strong messages have emerged during the Scottish referendum campaign.

  • People are interested in politics when debate is brought alive, involves them and when they can see that their vote can make a real difference.
  • Westminster politicians are seen as remote and disconnected from the public. This is not just a Scottish phenomenon.
  • People don’t trust politicians to keep their promises.

Analysis of the UK Parliament’s make up gives a clue about why Members of Parliament might seem distant from the electorate, as this diagram from “Elitist Britain” shows.

“Lessons will be learnt”, has to become more than just a mantra trotted out when politicians are short of an excuse or explanation. There is a role for adult education to:

  • encourage informed debate of political issues outside the narrow confines of political parties;
  • make sure that voters are not just informed, but are involved and active in exploring how democratic – and non-democratic – political systems work so that they can hold politicians to account;
  • support the development of a new and more inclusive generation of politicians who are more representative of the electorate that they serve.

ConcernWe might find some answers in a return to the principle of representative democracy, with people from communities developing the skills and expertise to stand for election by their local peers. Practical political education can support people to learn about critical thinking, communications, analysis, debating and public speaking skills so that they can become confidently active in democratic decision-making.

The WEA is one of thirty member organisations who have joined together in the “Democracy Matters” alliance to promote practical political education.  This graphic explains our shared aim.

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The Scottish electorate has shown that there is an appetite for public debate and exchanges of views about economics, health, education, welfare, equality, employment, energy production, nuclear weapons and the issues that matter to people. They want to influence decisions that affect them and realise that our current political system is neither representative nor fully democratic. Surely a politician elected by  – and from – his or her community to be their advocate will be less remote than a career politician dropped into a safe seat to keep their chosen party in power.

It’s a long time since people have been engaged so fervently in political debate and the turnout in the Scottish referendum gives an opportunity to revitalise our democracy. Can we afford to waste it?

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.

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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.

Select Committee’s Inquiry into Adult Literacy and Numeracy

We need to spread the message that the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee has announced a new inquiry into adult literacy and numeracy (but not English for Speakers of Other Languages). This is an important development and an opportunity to contribute to policy on an issue highlighted so starkly in the recent PIAAC report, referred to in earlier blogs. The time for responses is tight so we should let people know about this as soon as we can and encourage responses.
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The Committee has invited written answers to the following questions:
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  • What is the Government currently doing to help adults improve their reading, writing and maths skills ?
  • How can the Government make sure that adults have the right skills that can help them find a job, which in turn will help the country, and more widely?
  • What are the best ways to help adults learn how to read, write and do maths—through formal education providers or in a different way?

This is a chance to show evidence of the difference that adult and community learning makes, together with how and why it works. It’s an opportunity to move the literacy and numeracy debate beyond an important but restricted ‘school-leavers and employers’ discussion.

Reading, writing and maths are functional skills that can help people to find jobs and we know that they also have an impact in other areas of their lives. They are fundamental to each of the WEA’s educational themes – employability, health and wellbeing, community engagement and culture – and we know that adults have many different starting points and initial motivations to get back into learning.

The WEA is enthusiastic about this inquiry and will be submitting a formal response but we also encourage other people to do so. We need a compelling range of collective responses so that more adults can benefit from improving their literacy, numeracy and lives but…

the deadline for the submission of written evidence is Thursday 6 February 2014.

You can find the official link to the inquiry here.

 

Massive, open, online and incompleted courses?

The University news feature on page 28 of the current Private Eye (No. 1341, 31 May – 13 June 2013) focuses on MOOCs – “massive open online courses”. Several prominent universities are offering these courses free of charge to anyone, anywhere with internet access. Many people are only likely to stumble upon these courses if they’re directed to them, but the options seem very attractive in light of rising fees in higher education and a decline in participation by mature students.

The article includes statistics that are surprising in this context and very disappointing if taken at face value.

  • Only 10% of people who start short courses with Coursera (https://www.coursera.org/) ever finish them. (Source: New York Times)
  • There was an average completion rate of just 6.8% for students on 29 MOOCs run by prestigious universities in various countries (Source: Katy Jordan, PhD student at the Open University)
  • A mere 2.2% of people who enrolled on a 5-week artificial intelligence planning course run by Edinburgh University in January received a statement of accomplishment for finishing and only 4% finished an e-learning and digital cultures course.

It would be interesting to delve further into reasons for the reported non-completion. What was the demographic make-up of students and what were their incentives for joining courses? What role did information, advice and guidance play in assessing how suitable courses were for each student? Were the learning processes meaningful and motivating? What pedagogical principles were applied? Do we commit as deeply to courses that are relatively anonymous and free of charge?

In comparison, the WEA’s Self-Assessment Report for the last academic year shows average success rates for all our adult education courses (accredited and non-accredited) as 93%.

Figures show that tailored support plays an important role.

  • 96% of WEA students receiving Additional Learning Support stayed to the end of their courses.
  • 95% of WEA students receiving Discretionary Learner Support stayed to the end of their courses.

As well as completing courses, WEA statistics for 2011-12 from our student survey show that:

  • 25% of students progressed onto another taught course
  • 66% of these progressed onto a course with the WEA while 33% progressed on to a course with another provider.
  • 33% of our students who went on to do further learning progressed onto a course with a qualification.

The WEA student body is from a very diverse range of groups and circumstances:

  • one third were aged over 65
  • 24% were from minority ethnic groups
  • 27% had a physical disability
  • 13% had a learning difficulty or disability
  • 40% were in receipt of income related benefit
  • 37% lived in a ward with a disadvantaged postcode
  • 41% did not have previous qualifications above Level 2.

Most WEA courses are part-time and involve face-to-face teaching, learning and assessment with active group participation but we’re keen to make access to learning more flexible by increasing the range and availability of our online resources. Clearly we will have to learn some lessons from MOOCs and their effectiveness if their outcomes and impact aren’t yet meeting the high expectations and promise.

The Open University has a very successful tradition of distance learning and blended learning so it will be interesting to see the development of Futurelearn MOOCs http://futurelearn.com/about/, which could offer progression for some WEA students.

Reflective practice and feedback in leadership and management

Reflective practice is a feature of good teaching and learning. It’s important for governors and managers in education too.

Last week WEA Trustees and senior managers met to work on the next stages of our strategic planning. We used critical thinking and questioning to challenge any ‘fixed mind-sets’ in the planning process. Our working principles for more detailed strategic planning included the following:

1. Stick to core principles – education first
We agreed not to work on finance and funding strategies until we had focused on the priorities and direction of our educational work. Our vision, mission and values are central to planning. We concentrated on plans to improve outcomes for our students and their communities based on our prioritised themes of employability, health and wellbeing, community engagement and culture.

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2. Avoid the ‘echo chamber’ effect
We recognise that talking among ourselves could lead to predictable thinking as we read the runes, even within a lively, democratic organisation, unless we consider other sources of information and interpretation. Contributions from external experts can ginger up our approach to strategic planning and help us to review our work in the light of wider social, economic, policy and educational trends.

3. Keep challenging stereotypes
People are individuals with different interests, talents or aspirations, whatever their circumstances. Inclusion has to be on the basis of personal aims, ambitions and circumstances and not on a patronising tick-box approach. There’s more about some of our current work on equality and diversity at http://betterforeveryone.wordpress.com/.

4. Empathy and involvement
We discussed the need to think about things from the perspectives of students, tutors, volunteers and partners, trying to see the impact of plans from their points of views. We recognise the dangers of second guessing other people’s opinions on their behalf without wider, inclusive discussions.

5. Identify historical ‘drag’ factors that slow down progress
We challenged the attitude of, “We can’t change this because we’ve always done things this way.”

The meeting released some fresh questions and ideas to discuss at Scottish, regional and local levels in England and was a productive way to review and update strategic planning assumptions.

Meeting the matrix Standard
We received the feedback from an intensive two-and-a–half week assessment for the matrix Standard on the day after our Strategy Day. (The lower case m isn’t a typo.)

The matrix Standard is the unique quality framework for the effective delivery of information, advice and/or guidance on learning and work. It promotes the delivery of high quality information, advice and/or guidance by ensuring organisations review, evaluate and develop their service; encourage the take up of professionally recognised qualifications and the continuous professional development of their staff.

See http://matrixstandard.com/ for more information.

We were delighted with the feedback, although we’re never complacent. The report won’t be available for a few weeks but it is very encouraging. We enjoyed hearing the independent validation of the WEA’s strengths after a rigorous assessment of 5 English regions. We’re also pleased that the suggested areas for improvement aligned very closely with those that we had identified in our own Self-Assessment Report, Improvement and Development Plan and during our Strategy Day.