Our story: The WEA North East Green Branch

Branch Secretary Nigel Todd shares the story of one of the WEA's biggest successes

The WEA North East Region Green Branch emerged in November 2011. Its genesis was rooted in evidence of interest in responding to climate change. The Region had already held three annual, and successful, World Development Day regional conferences on climate issues arranged jointly with partners including The Co-operative, Unison, Newcastle Science City and others.  

It’s worth noting that the regional conferences were themselves responses to the findings of the WEA’s Self-Assessment Reports that revealed imaginative uses of environmental education across the Association, but on a scale so marginal as to put the future of this curriculum area in doubt.  

As it would have been strange for the WEA to abandon an engagement with ‘green issues’ at a point when tackling the impacts of climate change was a major public and scientific concern, a meeting was arranged to test the level of interest in generating a more organised and high profile initiative in the North East of England. This meeting formed the WEA Green Branch as a thematic Branch, open to anybody across the whole Region, and committed to exploring relevant varied approaches to adult learning.  

Within a short space of time, some 60-70 people had joined the Branch, and a core of volunteers emerged to make an active Branch viable. Members often had connections with other ‘green’ organisations – eg Friends of the Earth, the Permaculture Association, community farms, Greening Wingrove, and allotment associations – and it was noteworthy that younger people were attracted into active participation.

The Green Branch is finalising an evaluation of the role of the Branch and its programme, but the span of activity, so far, has covered:

  • Four annual regional ‘Back to the Land’ conferences with strong focuses on food as well as community renewable energy, utilising inputs from specialist agencies such as the Plunkett Foundation and renewable energy practitioners.  These one-day conferences generally enrol approximately 80 participants, and lead on to related projects.  Projects have included energy usage assessments of community buildings, and a ‘food hub’ feasibility study (linking urban consumers with ‘local’ producers) that was presented to the Oxford Real Farming Conference in January 2016
  • Development of learning packages (‘Green Thinking Skills’) sufficiently flexible to support ‘taster’ sessions with Union Learning Representatives and conference delegates as well as more substantial learning experiences with community, political and environmental groups
  • Creating ‘Green Quizzes’ as discussion prompts at WEA Branches and other meetings.
  • Arranging ‘Green Question Times’ at community festivals, drawing panellists from ‘green’ pressure groups and often including Newcastle MP, Chi Onwurah, who subsequently agreed to chair the new All Party Parliamentary Group on Life Long Learning.
  • Facilitating networking by extensive use of the Green Branch members’ mailing list to share invitations to take part in education offered by other organisations.
  • Recruitment of more ‘green skills’ or environmental issues tutors for the WEA North East Region.
  • Engagement with helping to shape WEA national policy and conferences that has proved productive and has strengthened the Association’s commitment to environmental sustainability.
  • Promoting the public profile of the WEA as an Association interested in environmental sustainability and welcoming to those who would like to experiment with ‘green’ adult education.
  • Forming new project-based partnerships (eg: University of Northumbria). 
  • Connecting with WEA colleagues in other Regions to encourage a wider commitment to environmental education and to share ideas that could lead to a national green project.
  • Working closely with the WEA Greening Wingrove Project and its legacy groups to test ways of enhancing resilience to the impacts of climate change at neighbourhood levels.
  • Developing and testing a local producers-to-urban consumers’ food hub.
  • Training volunteers in how to undertake energy audits of their community buildings in order to reduce energy consumption and save money.
  • Linking with the WEA Sustainability Forum, and assisting with a sustainability ‘audit’ of the WEA North East Regional Office.
  • Working with the British Science Festival to create a public ‘Question Time’ on ethical responsibility on science, involving Lord Robert Winston, Chi Onwurah, MP, and others.
  • Jointly organising a day school on the environmental history of the River Tyne with the WEA North East History & Heritage Branch, including arranging for the community theatre group, Three Acres and a Cow, to present their ‘history is fun’ story of land rights.
  • Organising WEA day and weekend ‘schools’ on ecology in relation to the natural environment and social action.

Finally, the Green Branch has actively searched, productively, for external funding from trusts, charities, agencies, the BIG Lottery, Awards for All and elsewhere, synchronising with the WEA fund raising team.  This has made it possible to fund new initiatives outwith the Education & Skills Funding Agency national contract.