The man who invented the ‘adult learner’ and ‘seriously useless learning’

A Guardian article about the influential adult educator Alan Tuckett has resurfaced on social media this week. It’s almost 2 years old but very relevant as adult learners begin a new academic year of part-time courses.

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Alan Tuckett is a prominent campaigner for adult education including what he calls, “seriously useless learning” – by which he means learning that offers no immediate obvious route into employment but has demonstrably positive benefits. The Guardian article gives some examples of how effective part-time adult education  can be.

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A news item published today by the University of Oxford adds to the evidence that adult education has many benefits. In partnership with the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA), the largest voluntary sector provider of adult education in England and Scotland, a team from Oxford’s department of experimental psychology studied attendees at seven separate day-time adult education classes. Their findings are published in a series of papers which can be found by following links from the University’s website here.

Dr Eiluned Pearce who led the research said: ‘The students reported benefits including increased self-confidence, a greater feeling of control over their lives and more willingness to take on new challenges. Some said the classes made them more motivated to be more active, despite the classes not specifically involving physical activity.

Many students will be embarking on learning journeys this month. Some will have specific plans to make their journey a commute to work or a better job. They know what they want to learn, where they want to go and how long they will take to get there. Others will be starting learning expeditions, explorations, adventures or even jaunts. Who knows where their courses will take them? What difference will it make to families to have adults who are intellectually curious, creative and excited about finding out more about all sorts of subjects? What will the impact be on students’ health, well-being, confidence, competence and sense of belonging?

Alan Tuckett and others make a strong case but voices like his are needed more than ever as the numbers of adult learners decline and yet more opportunities for adult learning are lost with the sad news that the University of Leicester plans to close Vaughan Center for Lifelong Learning. We need to work hard to reverse this trend.

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Banking on a better future for women

Scottish Widows, the Insurance division of Lloyds Banking Group, organised an event in Parliament last night for WEA students, volunteers, staff, MPs from England, Scotland and Wales and people from partner organisations. We are grateful to Fiona Mactaggart MP, who not only hosted the evening, but who is well-known to WEA students in Slough.

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Fiona Mactaggart MP welcoming guests to the Parliamentary event

Scottish Widows is working with the WEA to support adults returning to education and to reduce financial and social inclusion, as well as building a greater understanding of financial planning.  400 Scottish Widows’ staff have been sharing their skills and knowledge with over 2,000 WEA students, volunteers and staff. Some have helped students in ESOL classes with speaking and listening skills while others have volunteered in employability workshops designed to help students to identify their strengths and skills for finding jobs. This film explains more:

The main purpose of the Parliamentary event was to launch a WEA report on “Securing a better future for women”. As well as Fiona Mactaggart, speakers included Toby Strauss, Group Director for insurance at Lloyds Banking Group and CEO of Scottish Widows, Ruth Spellman, the WEA’s CEO and Hazel Richardson, a WEA tutor from Yorkshire.

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Speakers: Top left: Fiona Mactaggart Top Right: Toby Strauss Bottom Left: Ruth Spellman Bottom Right: Hazel Richardson

The report examines priorities for helping women, particularly those who are older, into work or better job opportunities and development. It suggests urgent action in three areas:

  • giving women the confidence to take up and progress in work;
  • provide them with the skills businesses need;
  • and provide more opportunities for flexible working in the workplace.

Around 75% of WEA students are women, with many of them from disadvantaged backgrounds. The WEA has campaigned for the rights of women since it was founded in 1903, with early public advocacy of nursery education and the suffragette movement.

This report is part of the WEA’s ongoing campaign on Women Overcoming Disadvantage.  More information is available here.

You can find out more about the event and download the report here.

Do you want my job?

The WEA has started the search for my successor as Deputy Chief Executive and Director for Education.

I wrote to Trustees last July to let them know that I planned to retire at the end of June 2015, but it still seems strange to see the advert for the job appearing on the WEA’s website and in my Twitter timeline today.

The role is within a newly restructured Senior Management Team and is becoming vacant at an exciting time of planned change for the Association.

Working with the WEA is a great chance to be part of a vision-driven organisation with an illustrious history and a continued focus on adult education for social purpose.

Are you interested in the job or do you know someone who might be? If so, please do follow the link in the tweet or share the message.

Thank you.

This Girl Can. ESOL students can.

The WEA’s curriculum is based on the four themes of Employability, Health and Wellbeing, Community Engagement and Culture. The themes are not mutually exclusive and it’s always good to see tutors being creative in how they use their time, imagination and resources to stimulate students and enrich their learning.

Hazel Richardson, a WEA tutor teaching in Bradford, is generous in sharing ideas and updates from her ESOL classes. Her tweets are a good example of reflective practice and show how adult ESOL students benefit from her keen interest and enthusiasm in inspiring and challenging them..

Hazel tweeted last term about students visiting Bagshaw Museum and voting in a local consultation. This week she reported that students watched the “This Girl Can” film as a stimulus for discussion and learning.

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The film is part of a topical campaign and raises a lot of issues for discussion. You can find out more about it here.

The campaign has been developed by Sport England and is attracting well-deserved attention. It’s a challenging choice to prompt critical thinking and debate as ESOL students improve their English language skills. The Independent reported on the campaign fairly positively here but a piece in the Guardian’s “Comment is free” section asserted that, “The This Girl Can campaign is all about sex, not sport”. You can read this opinion here.

What do you think of the “This Girl Can” campaign and how might it be embedded in teaching, learning and assessment across the curriculum?

Past blogs have included examples of literacy and numeracy sessions in supermarkets, with students putting their learning into practice in situations that are directly relevant to their daily lives, and of enriching ESOL lessons with the Six Book Challenge or Quick Reads.

Any other examples of resources or ideas to ginger up teaching and learning in ESOL or across educational themes to keep learning inspiring, challenging, relevant and effective?

Fat Man on a Keyboard said… (Adult Ed)

I missed “Adult Education – Another Rant” by Peter Ryley, who blogs under the name of “Fat Man on a Keyboard”, when he published it in October. He was responding to Peter Wilby’s Guardian article about Alan Tuckett.

Here is an extract from Peter Ryley’s blog, which you can find here.

The picture of adult education that, “It’s just flower arranging, tap dancing, Pilates, lonely old folk going to dusty classrooms to learn about the Tudors”, was never the whole truth. There may have been a time in the post-war boom when so-called ‘leisure classes’ were the most visible part of our provision, but it is atypical of our history. Political radicalism, social egalitarianism and adult education marched together as part of a movement for emancipation; the Mechanics Institutes, working class autodidacts and self-improvement associations, the university extension movement, the WEA, trade union education, the residential colleges, Birkbeck and so on, were all constructed in the belief that what we now tend to call lifelong learning was central to the creation of a better society and to the development of individuals and communities. It was a cause.

And we lost this sense of mission, together with its language, and with them went the provision, as Wilby makes clear in an understated way. Fighting back with utilitarian justifications was always going to seem to be special pleading. We need to recover that vision of human possibility, though I fear it is too late.

I had a glimpse of just how much adult education is a deep human need today when my window cleaner tried to recruit me for his pub quiz team. He was intrigued by the number of books he saw in the house and thought I might help them win things. He described how he reads anything and everything, sitting in bed every night with a factual book, learning. He loves learning things, anything. Adult education’s problem is that this is seen as having no utility, a private pleasure maybe, but never a public good. I see it as something more, as a human right. And we’re losing it.

The WEA and others share his vision of human possibility and education for public good and we know it’s never too late to highlight the cause. It’s too important to give up on and there is kernel of determined support for it.

In the WEA we have reaffirmed our traditional commitment to adult education for collective and social benefit as well as for individual advancement. Our longstanding vision and mission are back at the heart of our planning and we are not alone in seeing education for social purpose as a vital part of a civilised society.  Mechanics’ Institutes might have gone but we are still working alongside residential colleges such as Northern College and Ruskin, as well as trade union educators, Birkbeck and other universities. 

We are still active in (non-party) political education, community engagement and self-improvement – as well as, yes, running courses about the Tudors as Peter Ryley mentioned. There is a demand for community based part-time, high quality, tutor-led Humanities courses.

The Winter edition of WEA News shows how the Specialist Designated Institutions – Hillcroft College, City Lit, Fircroft College, the Mary Ward Centre, Northern College, Ruskin College, Morley College, the Working Men’s College and the WEA – are still going strong and continuing to raise the profile of adult education while we working with our students and their communities. You can read it here.

Adult and Community Learning is an important, but often overlooked, part of the education landscape so any further rants in support of lifelong, life-wide are very welcome!

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.

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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