Ruth Spellman, CEO, Annual Conference Speech

These conferences are special because they unite members of the WEA and remind us what a great organisation of enthusiasts we are. The theme of today has been impact - on individuals, families, communities, regions, and countries.

So while it’s a battle to maintain our current funding and we face some tricky challenges with both funding and devolution, we must keep the WEA going for the next generation. We need the WEA to thrive and grow so that access to learning is there through life and for everyone.

There are currently more people on benefits in work than out of work, which means there is a low pay trap for many working people who have little time for learning. We seem to be going back to the conditions which led Mansbridge and others to form the WEA in the early 1900s.

We must continue to innovate and change just as we have always done. With an aging population, technology that will displace many unskilled jobs and will automate jobs which are currently carried out by professionals, the deficit in English, Maths and Digital skills and the challenges of Brexit, the need for adult education has never been greater. In this environment we need to try to make the WEA as accessible as possible – increasing our evening and weekend provision and focusing on the skills people need to get a better job.

The 4 themes of the WEA; employability, health and wellbeing, community engagement and the creative arts and culture are ever more relevant and this year we have also been developing and delivering progression pathways.
The WEA treats all students as equals and brings learning to the learner. This is our unique contribution. In our recent consultation on the priorities for the next 5 years, many have said that we need to focus our energy on what we do best, and we need to preserve the things that make us special. In times of scarce resource and competition with many other charities we also need to keep costs down and performance up.

We want to help struggling parents and families improve their own skills and change the life chances of their children. This has been at the heart of the WEA since the beginning and it is one of the areas of focus in our emerging 5 year plan. I would like to thank all the Trustees and Council for their contributions and there is more to come before we reach the next Trustee meeting in July when we will be making decisions. Whatever our future education strategy looks like it is critical that we communicate well - both internally and externally.

Raising the profile of the organisation is very important if we want student growth and additional income. We have made great strides with the work we have done in England and Scotland on the branding, the website and our share of the media but there is a way to go yet to make the WEA a household name. Our Awards programme, the launch of our fellowship Scheme, the development of ambassadors can all be taken further by truly involving staff, volunteers and sponsors.

Wherever I look in the WEA, we are moving forward and the more we can build on our success the better. We must engage more volunteers, funders and supporters if we are to achieve our potential. Lots of ideas have emerged today which will help us to do this.

Thank you all of you for being part of the WEA - an organisation with a heart and a vision - to enrich lives through education. Thank you for all your hard work over the past year and looking forward to an exciting future.