National Conference, Cambridge 2013
Building Communities in Challenging Times was the theme of the conference on day one, and I hope I have given below some impression of what went on during the day and why events like this are important for all of us in WEA. This is of course my own personal experience of Conference 2013, so forgive omissions (no one can attend everything on offer) and errors (though I hope there aren’t any).
The two day conference was held in Cambridge this year, as WEA Eastern Region is celebrating the centenary of WEA presence in the region. There were two venues, both lovely buildings, the Corn Exchange and the Guildhall. Conference usually divides into two clear parts; on the first day we have the “conference” part, which takes a particular theme relating to our WEA mission, and offers speakers and workshops relevant to that. The next day we get down to the business of the Association, voting for officers, debating motions and so on.
On Friday morning we were welcomed by Chair of Trustees John Taylor, who pointed out that education was needed more than ever. He cited the rather shocking statistic that showed that of 24 of the most developed countries, the UK is rated 22/24 for literacy and 21/24 for numeracy.
Ruth Spellman, WEA General Secretary and Chief Executive, at her first Biennial Conference, started by saying how WEA had contributed much to her own family. Her grandfather had moved on from WEA classes to go to Cambridge, and both her parents had been WEA tutors. With gaps between rich and poor, achievers and non-achievers, seeming to be wider than ever, WEA’s mission to work for “a better world – equal, democratic and just” must be pursued and publicised even more energetically.
Baroness Joan Bateman, President of Birkbeck College, and well-known broadcaster, then gave the keynote address. Like Ruth, she comes from a background where WEA was valued. Her parents had no further education at school but gained much more by going to night school and their WEA classes, hurrying out after a day’s work to get the learning they craved. She believes that all people love to learn, and that those seen as failures in education or “skivers” are those who feel disappointed in their hopes and hence disaffected. Education has failed them; a system that is exam-fixated rather than with an emphasis on learning, a system that can let unimaginative and boring teaching continue, is bound to create truancy and low achievement in some. Here WEA can help such people in later life, not only by providing support with numeracy and literacy, but by offering enrichment to their lives through the many inspiring community projects and through cultural studies as offered in the many WEA Branches.
Workshops sessions then followed. We had to choose one of four at each of the three sessions, two before and one after lunch. To give a flavour of what was on offer I’ll describe two of those I attended.
The first was about The Environment and Local Communities. The Greening Wingrove Project, which was set up to help the people of Wingrove, Newcastle upon Tyne live more sustainably through growing produce, recycling and saving energy. Those of us in the WEA Branches probably know very little of this side of WEA’s work. WEA was one of several partners, both local and national, who worked together to set up and run this project. There have been advantages in addition to the obvious ones – to the finances of the people of Wingrove and to the environment. Doing activities together, such as cultivating allotments, encountering neighbours at meetings and working together to clear rubbish is promoting a stronger feeling of community. Individuals have discovered a sense of purpose through volunteering on the project. Learning the skills needed to save energy, grow food, reuse and recycle effectively are all reinforcing basic skills useful in all areas of life.
Another workshop I attended was Does Cultural Education Matter?, looking at the value of cultural education for everybody, not just for the typical attendees at out Branch courses. The “Digability” project took a group of people with diverse educational needs or difficulties and, with the help of a large group of willing volunteers, they took on an archaeological project involving lots of practical work. The participants gained many skills, improving numeracy and literacy, coordination and concentration, and working ias part of a group. Another very pleasing outcome was that the volunteers felt they had gained a lot too, reporting increased confidence, sense of worth, and enthusiasm to keep volunteering.
A few of the other topics covered, there were twelve to choose from, included Digital Inclusion, Reaching Marginalised Communities, Volunteering, and Women in Communities.
Following the workshops we had our own version of the Question Time Debate, with eminent people from the world of education and in particular, adult education, who took questions from the floor. I am in awe of the ability that the panel members had to give coherent and useful answers to questions they had not heard beforehand. How I wish I could come near to that!
Workshops were spread between the Guildhall and the adjacent Corn Exchange, and of course most of us promptly forgot where we were supposed to be. Add in the usual scrum for the buffet lunch and the fringe events such as Peter Templeton’s discussion about the membership issue, and it became a very busy day indeed, but no one wanted to miss the presentation of WEA awards at the end of the afternoon. The awards were for tutor and student of the year and for outstanding work between WEA and partner organisations. After a short time to freshen up and change, we enjoyed the dinner as a welcome rest from note taking and scuttling from one room to another.
Meeting members from branches in other regions, and workers (both from WEA and our various partners) in projects and community work is one of the pleasures and benefits of attending conference. This happens most easily in coffee breaks and at mealtimes, so the Friday evening Gala Dinner was the best chance for this. I shared a table with members from as far apart as Edinburgh and Cornwall, as well as a representative of Eastern region, so there was plenty of chance to exchange views there. I confess it wasn’t all earnest work, as we were entertained by an excellent folk group, and after dinner there was dancing, but then, “all work and no play …..” and we had been working up to that point. to another.
More about day two in a later post.