Ruth Spellman Speech to Oxford University Department for Continuing Education

Yesterday WEA CEO, Ruth Spellman delivered a speech as the Guest Speaker at the Oxford University Department for Continuing Education Annual Award Ceremony.

The Department's annual Award Ceremony took place at the Sheldonian Theatre and celebrated the completion of the Department's undergraduate award-bearing courses.

You can read the full speech below...


Thank you very much for inviting me to speak tonight.

The WEA and the Oxford University Department for Continuing Education grew from the same roots. A lot of our work in the early part of the 20th century was undertaken in Oxford.

Albert Mansbridge, one of the founders of the WEA set up a conference of Universities, Trade Unions and cooperative societies in Oxford in 1903 and out of this came the Workers’ Educational Association. As recently as 15 years ago, we had an extensive joint programme in Oxfordshire – at least 20 courses per year, covering a range of subjects and our partnership with Oxford has been enduring, despite many other university extra mural departments closing down. In the early 90s we had a very successful joint access course, which saw many people progress from a WEA course onto higher education, both at Oxford University and Oxford Brookes. Today we are celebrating and commemorating over a 100 years of history in which adult education has played a critical part.

The need for government investment in Adult Education came out of the Industrial Revolution and the huge economic social and political turmoil that led to and followed WWI. In 1919 the Master of Balliol set up a commission into the reconstruction of education to build a better Britain . The context was wider and deeper than WWI but like so many historical changes it was precipitated by the aftermath of conflict on an unprecedented scale.

Factors which contributed were :-

  • The rise of an urban working class
  • Demand for skilled labour
  • Desire of all the political parties to achieve an enduring peace - and to avoid bloody revolution (shock waves of the Russian revolution) but also to deliver a peace dividend i.e. a more prosperous country - a land fit for heroes and heroines
  • The officer class had rubbed shoulders with ordinary men and women - there was a new awareness of social and economic inequality
  • The rise of the suffragette movement and an articulate and organised female workforce
  • The seditious belief that education could transform the lives of ordinary people - by permanently lifting them and their families out of poverty and enhance the quality of life.

Despite the many differences between 1919 and 2019 there are many similarities and the 1919 Report has a distinct ‘deja vu’ quality.

Technological change, life expectancy and social divisions are key issues now as they were then.
In the last 20 years or so we have seen life chances for the 'haves and have nots' increasingly divergent, and entrenched educational, health and income inequalities second only to America (in the developed world).

The social mobility report of 2018 shows the gaps ........

  • 1 in 6 workers is in a low paid job - at minimum wage or less
  • Those who are the least well qualified benefit the least from government investment in skills and education
  • UK spend on vocational training per employee was 1/2 the EU average.

From Slough to Hastings in the South, to Sunderland and Newcastle in the North, and from Ipswich in the East to Taunton and Devon in the West families and communities are suffering a negative impact on their collective prosperity and wellbeing.

The Joseph Rowntree Trust regularly reports on the growth of child poverty and many charities are ‘picking up the tab’ for progressive cuts in local authorities and in state support for Further Education.

The plain fact is that we have outgrown our education systems and structures. 92% of the funding for education and skills goes to the under 19s whereas 80% of the population is over 19. The Adult Education Budget is a mere £1.5bn out of an overall Department for Education budget of £66.5bn.

We need to tap into the wisdom of our forefathers and reinvest in education for adults and make it a cross party issue.

We must:

  • Have ramps on as well as ramps off
  • Incentives for business and individuals to invest
  • Government core funding for foundation skills and entitlements to EMD
  • Engagement with plurality of providers including charities and trade unions
  • Repurposing of education institutions Universities, Colleges and Schools
  • Adequate core funding fo the long term and funding for innovation
  • At the moment 1 in 10 of the adult population has no accredited qualification and 4 in 10 are economically inactive.

My grandfather left school at 11 in 1897. He joined a WEA class in the local library in 1905 two years after the start of the WEA. He borrowed books to study late into the evenings after his 10 hour shift in the local iron works (driving my grandma mad). At the age of 29 he won a TU scholarship to Ruskin College, Oxford and 5 years later he studied at Peterhouse Cambridge, where one of his lecturers was John Maynard Keynes.

He then returned to South Wales and spent his working life inspiring others with the power of learning, writing, teaching and sharing his love of learning with his community, his children and grandchildren. He was a brilliant example of social mobility in action and the ‘multiplier effect’ of education. His story was exceptional then but it would be even less likely to happen today.

One of the challenges we face today is to recreate that love of learning in every community - a great way to improve the quality of life at home and at work. It’s a much needed public investment without which our society is poorer. Our education institutions need to collaborate to create learning pathways - re-entry points through working life and into older age.

A current example of collaboration is the Commission we have just established - Adult Education 100 - involving myself and Jonathan representing both the WEA and Oxford. This follows 100 years of collaboration between our institutions enabling thousands of adults to engage part time, on wide ranging and inspiring higher education courses. The experience has been enriching for both the students themselves and for both institutions and we are now laying plans to take our partnership onto a new growth path.

So when you leave the dreaming spires of Oxford remember what you take with you and remember to come back! Education is a continuing source of inspiration and renewal and has the power to change the world. As you contemplate the careers ahead of you - the friendships you have made and the knowledge you gave acquired - put it all to good use - keep on learning - not just for yourself but for the benefit of future generations.

Congratulations to all graduating students - you have all worked hard , overcome personal barriers. You have important stories to tell and a massive contribution to make.

Thank you for listening and wishing you every success in the future.