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Adult Learner Interns?

May 16, 2011

I went recently to a celebration event for volunteers and partner organisations in Handsworth, Birmingham. The room was buzzing with enthusiasm and a sense of achievement.

The celebration marked the end of a small-scale project supported by the Tackling Racial Inequalities Fund, one of a number organised in WEA regions. The project had supported local people, members of black and minority ethnic groups, who wanted a voluntary workplace placement. The partners were mainly educational establishments but also included a local museum and a church.

Veena, the WEA project organiser, had done a superb job, finding volunteers and linking them up with partners who could potentially provide a suitable placement. The project had also provided training and sorted out things like CRB checks. According to Veena the ability to provide support with travel costs and childcare was also essential to the project’s success.

It was a short project with limited funds but thirty three volunteers were placed and an additional twelve were signposted to another agency. Some of placements were in educational support and ancillary services, such as school meals whilst others were in administration and reception.

The volunteers all seemed to find the experience uplifting; it found a use for skills and (in some cases qualifications) that had previously not been recognised and it provided hands on experience, a confidence boost, a reference and access to networks and contacts. ‘I found I knew a lot more than I thought’ said one who’d assisted in an ESOL class. ‘You don’t know as an outsider what they do…one day I hope to be a teacher’, said another who’d been a classroom helper. Training consolidated and honed some of these skills and benefits.

The partners were equally enthusiastic, delighted with the additional help. The head of a local school saw this as an important part of community cohesion and welcomed the volunteers who formed a ‘valuable part of the school team’. A local councillor, presenting awards saw this as ‘a good example of Big Society, empowering people.’

I was interested that a number of volunteers had ended up in paid employment, thanks to the experience and contacts gained. A volunteer in the Jewellery Quarter museum had got a job in a nearby jeweller’s shop; they had enquired of the museum if anyone was available for some part-time work and the volunteer already had experience in the jewellery industry, some years ago. Others got employment for example in schools, supermarket and as a receptionist in a GP surgery.

My thought at the end was that this was a good way of giving people in this community that step on the ladder that internships are supposed to provide, and that maybe we should try more of this, linking adult education, volunteering and employment opportunities.

Comments received on this blog:

Martin Sundram (posted 18/04/2011) “A welcome contribution to a debate on volunteers on a couple (at least!) of levels.   Just some initial comments, and hope to continue this discussion:

1)       London, probably in common with some other regions, has a large contingent of newish members, not affiliated to branches, the traditional route for voluntary engagement at a local level.  Whether the branch model will continue to be this depends on a variety of factors, not least the strategic role of the WEA in bidding for national/regional contracts as envisaged as part of New Look.   What to do with these new potential volunteers is something that the region has been scratching its head about for some time, but clearly we need to develop some avenue for utilising their willingness to participate before this evaporates – what is clear is that that sitting on committees is not everybody’s cup of tea!

2)      Enhancing employability prospects is surely a core WEA objective, particularly in the “current economic climate”.  Although a narrow focus on skills is superficially at odds with the liberal, educational thrust of Adult Learning we are trying to defend, the overriding aim of community, as well as individual, capacity building and cohesion (which unemployment undermines) suggests that we should reprioritise this aspect of our work.  Volunteering does provide a means to enhance skills and build individual’s cvs, as well as offering the organisation access to a pool of (hopefully) motivated people with something to gain as well as offer from their contribution.

3)      Should we target particular groups of potential volunteers?  The large and growing pool of graduate jobseekers  suggests one avenue, especially as a degree without some work experience or ‘additional’ activities during study has little chance of standing out from the crowd.  University students were, of course, among the first ‘volunteers’ in WEA historically….BUT: As the bulk of our new members currently come from classes, we would hope that our volunteers reflect our learners, and thus the demographic we serve (university students in general are not our target group of learners).  In London we have mainly two distinct learners groups at present, those who follow (and support)  the branch programmes (who tend to be older, even retired), and those in more ‘interventionist’ programmes, such as ESOL, Literacy and Numeracy, who are taking their  first steps into employment as well as day-to-day living.  My guess is that any emphasis on employability-building measures would aim for this latter group, under-represented among the active voluntary membership

4)      Just a couple of risks…One, such as the ‘taking back’ of concepts stolen from real community organisations such as ours by the Big Society party political project, is the danger of finding ourselves co-opted into the government’s embrace of internships as an alternative to meaningful (and paid) employment, a barrier to overcome and which benefits, notwithstanding the noises of its supporters, those from better-off backgrounds who can afford to take unpaid ‘jobs’.

5)      Coupled with this (and I guess this sounds fairly predictably trade uniony) is the danger of undermining paid employees’ position, particularly in a climate of redundancies.  This will require a degree of creative thinking, ensuring that volunteers are used as an addition to resources, rather than a replacement for work that should be paid for.  This, again, has echoes of the dangers for third sector organisations in embracing too enthusiastically and uncritically the Big Society emphasis on non-statutory bodies taking on roles hitherto performed by local authorities etc.

I am sure that collectively we can begin to address these issues, but thought I would pitch in to what I hope will become a lively debate!”


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  1. Monica Gort permalink

    Just had a quick look at this. Martin – you say

    ‘In London we have mainly two distinct learners groups at present, those who follow (and support) the branch programmes (who tend to be older, even retired), and those in more ‘interventionist’ programmes, such as ESOL, Literacy and Numeracy, who are taking their first steps into employment as well as day-to-day living. My guess is that any emphasis on employability-building measures would aim for this latter group, under-represented among the active voluntary membership’

    Did you forget that we have a thriving trade union reps programme in London with a lot of learners who fit into neither of the 2 learner groups you have identified?! Very worrying as you are our Regional Chair!

    These reps, WEA learners, are also ‘under-represented among the active voluntary membership’



  2. Martin Sundram permalink

    Quite right Monica, and didn’t mean to overlook this group of learners, especially as I work in the TU world! Nevertheless, it is true too that this group of learners are under-represented in the voluntary wing of the WEA, despite the historic ties between the TU movement and the Association, from its beginnings. It would be nice to revive a closer relationship between union branches and the WEA within the Region, something that a better and wider broadcasting of the affiliation option might assist.



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