Written by Finn Mackay

At the FWSA conference on ‘Feminism in Academia: An Age of Austerity? Current Issues and Future Challenges’ held on the 28th September 2012 at the University of Nottingham, an activist roundtable formed one of the workshop sessions. This panel included speakers from local and national women’s organisations: the Nottingham Women’s Centre, the Worker’s Educational Association and the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education.

In the second of these series of blog posts for the FWSA, Andrea Birch and Mel Lenehan, Managers from the Worker’s Educational Association, shared with us a brief of their presentation and some of their thoughts. Next week will be Carol Taylor, Director of the NIACE who decided to share with us two of her recent articles to give us an insight into the significance of adult education and its role in empowering and politicising women and men. 

Presentation from Worker’s Educational Association

Andrea Birch, WEA EM Projects Development Manager abirch@wea.org.uk

Mel Lenehan, WEA EM Regional Education Manager mlenehan@wea.org.uk

The Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) is the largest voluntary sector provider of adult education in Britain. Through adult education the WEA challenges and inspires individuals, communities and society to work for a better world. Social purpose is at the heart of all we do and we believe that education is life-long and should continue beyond school, college and university in order to help people develop their full potential in society. The WEA has a long history of engaging ‘hard to reach’ audiences in learning activity delivering over 10,000 courses per year with over 100,000 students of which nearly 80% are women, whilst also leading on and supporting national and local campaigns which support our vision and aims.

Our Vision is ‘A better world – equal, democratic and just; through adult education the WEA challenges and inspires individuals, communities and society’. WEA is a volunteer led organisation where the majority of volunteers are previous and current students.  Volunteers are central to our governance at every level and therefore have direct input into strategic planning and policy development.  We also have significant reach into communities through work in close partnership with over 2000 local community organisations.

Approximately two thirds of our (approximate) £30m income comes from a Skills Funding Agency Grant, with the remaining income made up of fees, other contracts and grant funding for focused project activities. Whilst the WEA to date has experienced relatively small cuts to core funding, we have found that funding for project activity which funds the type of positive action required to support the most disengaged into learning has been increasingly competitive and in shorter supply.    Further, we have found that many of our partner organisations, which are small community organisations with few or no paid employees, have experienced the biggest impact of the economic cuts in the third sector and many previous partner organisations no longer exist.    For those that do, we continue to work in partnership to deliver community education with a social purpose often providing the majority of their income through room rental and other course related funding.

We engage thousands of non-traditional students who are keen to re-engage with learning and enrich their lives as part of developing their careers, learning for pleasure and development of confidence and or to enhance their retirement.  In addition, we have successful experience of engaging ‘hard to reach’ groups through project activity which has included identifying and engaging refugees and asylum seekers, specific BAMER communities for example women from traditionalised Islamic backgrounds, adult offenders,  the long term unemployed, and mental health service users in a range of learning programmes and activities.

The WEA has 4 main strands or areas of activity: The Cultural Studies strand also known as liberal education programmes for which we are best known in some localities; The Women’s Learning Programme, courses run by and for women; Workplace learning, run in partnerships with trade unions; and the Community Involvement strand which is targeted work within communities experiencing high levels of social and economic exclusion.    Much of our externally funded project work sits within the Women’s Learning Programme and the Community Involvement strand.

Examples of recent project activity in the East Midlands include:

The DAIN project (Digital Activist Inclusion Network):  A project to support digitally and socially excluded people to use technology with support from unemployed volunteers.   (One of the target communities for this project was women).    www.dainproject.org.uk

The LILI project, ‘Women Leading for a Change’: Supporting women to take their first steps in to leadership roles through provision of events and workshops with inspirational women speakers.   http://womenleadingforachange.wordpress.com

Women into Politics:  A learning campaign and project to support and inspire more women to get involved in politics at every level.     http://womenintopolitics.wordpress.com/

All projects have the aim of supporting women and particularly those experiencing social and economic exclusion to take their first steps back into learning activities which will help them to gain skills and confidence to tackle some of the challenges they face in their daily lives.  Project funding enables us to provide outreach activity and very flexible small tastes of learning, along side travel and childcare expenses targeting those for whom even a typical 20 hour WEA course would be too intimidating or too much of a regular commitment due to other commitments or chaotic lifestyles.

The WEA Women’s Learning Programme (WLP) was developed in 1995 to offer courses in a wide range of subjects that cater for both women’s individual learning needs and the study of issues of interest to women from a women’s perspective.  The WLP also aims to further collective interests and activities of women within their communities and society.  The WLP builds women’s confidence in their own ability to learn by working on a specified subject area in tutor directed groups and relating this to their own experiences.  The  promotion of anti-discriminatory / anti-oppressive attitudes and  a wider  global perspective,  particularly in relation to the developing world,  are strands running through the entire programme and we have a long history of developing methods to embed equality and diversity into the curriculum in both explicit and implicit ways.

We welcome the opportunity to develop partnerships and projects with other learning organisations in HE, FE and the VCS and would be happy to share any project resources and learning which enable organisations to better support women within the current age of austerity and into what we hope is a fairer and more equal future.   Our current project development focuses on Women’s Learning, Women into Politics, Women and Homelessness, People with Mental Health Problems, measuring the impact of equality and diversity in the classroom, and work to support digital inclusion.