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‘If you could do one thing’: how WEA can help local authorities combat health inequalities

February 2, 2014

It’s great that leading experts recognise the importance of adult and further education in combating health inequalities; this is highlighted in one of nine contributions to ‘if you could do one thing…nine local actions to reduce health inequalities’ produced recently by the British Academy.
The authors, Tarani Chandola and Andrew Jenkins, draw on extensive published research to show the positive link between participation in education and improved health. Importantly they suggest that improvements are greatest amongst adults with the least educational qualifications and that vocational, qualification-bearing and ‘leisure’ courses all play a part. Provision needs to reach different disadvantaged groups including unemployed as well as employed and old as well as young. They stress that to be successful adult education must address the barriers amongst the least well off; this includes financial and accessibility issues as well as confidence and the need for education to be seen as relevant. Their study concludes by summarising two successful initiatives, one training staff in care homes to provide educational activities for residents and the other enabling doctors to prescribe access to an educational adviser for some of their patients.
The Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) is excellently placed to work in partnership with local authorities who wish to further develop their work in this field. Whilst we recognise that resources are tight, initiatives such as these can greatly benefit residents, support local authority priorities and lead to significant savings on health and social care.
Our own follow-up ‘impact research’ supports Chandola and Jenkins’ conclusions. An in-depth study of former students undertaken in 2013 found ‘Nearly all respondents (98 percent) reported a positive social or health impact as a result of doing their course. The majority (87 percent) noted the course had kept their mind and body active which rose to 94 percent in those with a long-term physical or mental illness.’ In addition there were hundreds of individual stories attesting to how WEA education helped students work through life crises (such as bereavement), overcome isolation and depression, develop healthier lifestyles and manage existing conditions.
We strongly agree too about the necessity to target and shape educational initiatives around the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups in society. Importantly, adult education recognises and can build on existing knowledge and understanding, a ‘community asset’ approach rather than a deficit model. We have a long and successful tradition of working with community leaders and organisations to engage local people in education that’s useful and relevant to them. Examples include Tandrusti and similar projects in the urban West Midlands that involve thousands of adults, mainly from BAME backgrounds, in tailor-made physical activity and health educational programmes.

For example during 2007-2012 over 95% of participants in our Tandrusti programme reported health maintenance or one (or more) health improvement , for example in reduced blood pressure, weight loss and waist circumference. Measurable improvements in confidence, mental health and community cohesion are also frequently recorded. 

The impact extends beyond course participants as it’s cascaded to family members, friends and others in the local community.
WEA educational programmes work well in partnership with local authority health and well-being priorities such as reducing the incidence of obesity and diabetes and increasing physical activity in the local population. The impact on the individuals is often long-term improving ‘health literacy’ and enabling people to manage their health and life styles more effectively. Benefits accrue to the local population as a whole reducing pressure on GP surgeries and A&E departments.
The WEA is the UK’s largest voluntary adult educational organisation and volunteering can play a vital part in health improvement education. A recent project in partnership with St Luke’s Hospice in Plymouth saw the WEA train and support volunteers and Hospice staff in providing an imaginative and widely praised programme of ‘creative well being’ education. This model is recognised as being widely transferable.

There is a rich experience and expertise here that can greatly assist local authorities’ efforts to reduce health inequalities.

Some useful links:

British Academy report: http://www.britac.ac.uk/policy/Health_Inequalities.cfm

WEA impact study: http://www.wea.org.uk/download.aspx?id=980
Blog on health education:

https://pcaldwell.wordpress.com/2013/01/28/community-health-education-an-idea-whose-time-has-come/

http://www.westmidlands.wea.org.uk/health-education

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