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WEA to take public spending debate to its members

Chief Executive and General Secretary of the Workers' Educational Association (WEA), Ruth Spellman, outlines her view as to what next week's Spending Review should contain

Over the coming weeks we will hear plenty of views about the outcomes of the Spending Review, to be announced on 26 June. Most of these will come from an institutional perspective and not take into account the opinions, hopes and fears of adult learners.

That is why the Workers' Educational Association, which has over 70,000 learners enrolled on courses each year, is launching a post Spending Review debate to argue the difference adult learning makes directly with adults in communities, local councillors, parliamentarians and policy makers.

In the WEA our vision is of “a better world - equal, democratic and just". We aim to inspire individuals, communities and society as a whole through adult education. As well as being a provider of courses, we are also a charity with a strong sense of social purpose.  All our educational provision is developed with this in mind.

The WEA is different from further education colleges and local authority providers, due to the high level of involvement of its members and volunteers, active at all levels in the organisation including its governance.  We intend to build on this strength over the coming months to ensure that their voice is heard in national policy development.

We will be focussing on three immediate policy debates after next week's Spending Review: low paid adults in work, women and families disproportionately affected by austerity measures, and how people can become more involved in decisions in their localities.

The impact of the recession on low paid adults in work

With the introduction of Universal Credit there is the recognition that adults receiving in work benefits are key to developing prosperity. The WEA feels that focussing on their skills' needs would help productivity, improve pay, and at the same time get people out of the benefit trap.

Positive action is needed to encourage people suffering from so-called 'in work poverty' to train and develop skills.  Adults in these groups could have up to 40 years at work before retirement. We hope spending decisions will see their progress as infrastructural investment (as much as any road or railway). As yet there is little evidence that this group sees the benefit of taking out government subsidised loans at level 3 or 4. Action is needed by employers and government to encourage these adults as lifelong learners.

The impact of austerity measures on women and families

Women are being disproportionately affected by austerity. Due to employment cut backs falling predominately in the public sector, where women made up 64% of the workforce in 2012, there has been a greater effect on female employees. Women’s unemployment has risen much faster than men’s. Women will contribute 74% of the public savings outlined in the current spending review until 2015. The anticipated flow of women from public to private sector jobs is likely to see them worse off in terms of pay differentials with men, and provision of childcare.

And yet women are the key actors in children’s success - they make up 92% of lone parent families - as well as elder care and workplace development. Not to invest in their skills and development will have greater costs elsewhere. That is it why it is important to continue to invest in family learning and employment sectors like health and social care where women still make up large parts of the workforce. It is also why the continued support for adult community learning is crucial to our nation's success.

Deciding locally

The WEA fully supports moves to devolve decisions about the economy, health and education to more local levels. But in doing so planners need to be aware of that many adults are still a long way from that labour market and many voices are still unheard even at local levels. We want to see far more people able to be involved in decisions, ask questions and shape services. This is key to realising potential, building confidence, prosperity and community cohesion. We see adult education as critical to achieving this, in its planning, provision and impact – creating an educated democracy. The WEA’s model of education relies on local level planning through communities, partners and voluntary branches.

Local provision should be determined by local need and an open and transparent method of allocating resources. This means local communities deciding what is best for their areas as well as businesses. With more funding likely to go into bodies that are not democratically elected such as Local Enterprise Partnerships, accountability is critical. How will LEPs work with providers, particularly in the voluntary sector, to understand the needs of those furthest from the labour market, and who often need the most support?

These are the things we will be looking at in the Spending Review and sharing with our members as we lead up to our Biennial Conference in October to debate with ministers across departments, MPs, and senior policy makers. We will also be encouraging our branches and all the people we work with locally - partners, councillors, schools, and other charities - to feed into wider debates as proposals for the future of the country are taken at local national level.

If you would like to get involved in the debate, please visit our website at www.wea.org.uk/getinvolved and let us know what you think.

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