WEA launches inaugural digital conference


The Workers' Educational Association (WEA) held its first digital member conference on Saturday 6th May 2017. Members from across the charity participated in the event, from six venues across the UK. WEA Chief Executive and General Secretary, Ruth Spellman, delivered the following keynote speech:

Welcome to the first WEA national conference to be held at 7 venues, and welcome to all the members who are joining us online. I want to start by thanking my team and the conference organisers for making this possible.

It is symbolic of the way in which the WEA can connect and does connect with so many communities.

We have an action packed day ahead with a galaxy of talent. 

WEA Chair Trevor Phillips OBE, WEA President Lynne Smith, WEA Deputy President Lindsay Pearson and external speakers, including Helen Milner OBE from the Good Things Foundation, are all speaking this afternoon.

It is appropriate that we are using technology to connect with our members – with a turnout of twice as many as last year.

My job is to set the context. Whatever the results of the election it's unlikely to change our situation fundamentally. The WEA faces numerous challenges ahead.

Firstly, our OFSTED inspection must happen this year. We need to achieve a good outcome if we are to retain confidence, our funding and attract new students to the WEA.

Secondly, we face a tough funding environment. We have campaigned successfully to maintain government investment in adult education but we face huge competition for public investment going forward. There is the ever present threat of cuts. And another threat to national funding from devolution if resources are devolved, increasing uncertainty and adding to our costs. We will have to compete across the country for the same funding that we enjoy now. 

ESF funding is also vulnerable post Brexit and charities as a whole are being expected to do more with less to win public or private sector funding bids.

These pressures apply just as much in Scotland. 

In this context the WEA continues to punch above its weight and to achieve impressive results. 

Thirdly, regulation and additional scrutiny of finances and cost controls are significant challenges. This limits our freedom of action. We have to return an operating surplus in each of the next two years.

At the same time, we need to continue to invest in business growth, marketing and technology - all of which are needed to improve the long term position of the WEA and to ensure we have a future.

We are very fortunate that we have Trustees, a Council, a new Board for Scotland and an army of volunteers and staff who understand these issues and have the courage, skills and determination to rise to the challenge 

For every challenge we see an opportunity.

In summary, we need to:- 

1. Grow our volunteer base and our membership

2. Develop new strategic partnerships especially with other charities and employers 

3. Target new sources of funding - legacies alumni and trusts and foundations 

4. Reach out to working people and a new generation of volunteers and members in the spirit of our historical roots and mission. We are the Workers' Educational Association and we are going to be even more needed in a post Brexit Britain. We need to be able to offer weekend courses and evening classes as well as bite size short courses which can be combined with earning a living.

According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the government’s recent Industrial Strategy is ‘right to focus on the skills of young people, but with 90% of the 2025 workforce having already left education, the need to increase adult skills in underplayed’. [1]

This means more change even as we consolidate the changes we have already made. There is a famous quote: “we can't change the world unless we learn how to change ourselves”.

We also need to revive and renew our roots and branches.

That's why I am so excited about the member offer we are launching today, and by the potential of digital learning - which Helen will talk about today. I’m also pleased to announce that our Chairman, Trevor Phillips, has just signed a new partnership agreement with the Open University.

Now is the time to call upon the WEA community to galvanise.

Everyone can help the cause by:

- recruiting new members. We have 68000 students every year and 11000 members (this shows the scope there is to convert more students into members and to reengage our alumni) 

- doing what you can to raise funds so we can run more classes

- recruiting new volunteers

- developing local links and partnerships 

- becoming an ambassador for the WEA

We need all our local knowledge and connections but we also need to think and act as one WEA.

Thank you for being here today - in London, Cambridge, Birmingham, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Exeter and here in Leeds.

And for everything you bring to this great organisation 

I am looking forward to a fantastic day in your company.

Ruth Spellman, May 2017