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WEA West Midlands: achievements and enduring challenges

August 1, 2011

It’s ten years since I took up the role of District Secretary of the old WEA West Mercia District. I was in two minds about applying for the job but I ‘m glad I did. I’ve enjoyed doing it and have got a lot out of it despite some stresses and strains along the way. The role (that evolved into Regional Director, West Midlands Region) has been discontinued and I’m taking up a different role as lead Director for two other regions (London and South West) as well as leading across the Association on Curriculum and Planning. Before starting that though I thought I’d do a quick look back, and forward.

In 2002/03, a year after my appointment, the Association was plunged into an institutional crisis as result really of never having come to terms with the massive complexities involved in funding changes introduced in the early 1990’s. We faced a huge budget deficit (£3m+) whilst missing our Learning & Skills Council target and heading (a year later) for a failed inspection. ‘Turnaround’ framed the priorities of the job really up until we had had a successful re-inspection and budgets and targets were on the up. At one level this was fairly straightforward once the senior management changes had taken place. There was a huge desire inside the WEA (and indeed outside) for the WEA to get back on track; the tasks were clear even though the impact was sometimes distressing for individuals and damaged some longstanding work relations.

The next few years were in some ways more of a challenge: improving and developing our work without the strong external constraints of the previous few years. In turn the current situation (defined by the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and the 2010 general election) is more complex; the ‘new paradigm’ creates different pressures for which we ourselves have to find the answers.

So what’s been achieved over the last decade, particularly in the latter, more stable, period and what are the enduring challenges?

Achievements:

– A really good staff team with lots of energy and ideas along with the work ethos needed to build the region over the next ten years
– Agreement amongst staff and volunteers about what we can best offer (our curriculum priorities particularly health, second chance and cultural studies along with trade union learning and ICT) and where and to whom we can offer it. More than agreement, we are making it happen by putting staff and other resources into priority areas
– Unity of purpose and congenial relations between staff and voluntary members, with a very effective officer group providing scrutiny, support and expertise
– A recently history of effective business planning that gives us financial stability and adaptability as well as the capacity (through the projects’ team) to find resources for our curriculum priorities
– Improving communications with a modern website and expanding use of social media helping us work more effectively as a dispersed team and influence external agendas like public health

Enduring challenges

– However hard we try, the communication gaps keep opening up particularly with course tutors and voluntary members. I can’t see much further than plugging away and trying different means to engage with people

– Balancing the need to keep an eye on compliance, volume and continuity with being creative and innovative; a big educational charity like us needs to be known for being unusual and original. Projects have provided the best opportunity for us to do this in recent times. Hopefully I’ll be some use here with my new national responsibility for ‘curriculum and provision’

– Making the sums add up especially now the funding environment is more competitive and everyone is asking for ‘more for less’. There is plenty of financial acumen but it will be a constant struggle to keep costs down and find new sources of funding. It is increasingly important too to demonstrate with evidence the benefits of adult education to individuals and the wider community.

– Membership: succession planning and democracy: two challenges really. Firstly, regional governance and most WEA branches are both heavily dependant upon a small number of dedicated people. Secondly we have several thousand members most of whom joined as part of course enrolment; engagement with at least some of them needs to be thought about. Again perhaps Peter Templeton (who started his WEA life as a volunteer in West Midlands) will come up with some useful ideas here.

So- I think the region is well placed to press ahead in the West Midlands and play an important part in the Association. I shall try to convey what I (we) have learnt elsewhere as well as finding out what staff and member colleagues in London and South West have come up with.

Pete Caldwell

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