10 December 2019

On 20 November 2019, the WEA held their Educational Impact Awards for its seventh year in a row, providing recognition for individuals and community projects which significantly change the lives of others through continued commitment to learning.

Ruth Spellman OBE, who will be stepping down as Chief Executive and General Secretary at the end of the year, says:

“Providing adult learning for over 100 years, we have made it our mission to ensure that the most disadvantaged adults have access to learning opportunities. As we reflect on the great achievements of our winners, we remember the simple idea that learning is for everyone, and here at the WEA, our ability to deliver to our learners is our unique way.”

The Skills and Education Group were delighted to sponsor the Social Impact award, which celebrated national and regional winners, and our Assistant Director for Membership, Foundation and External Affairs, Scott Forbes was there to present each award. Scott said:

“It was an honour to present these awards on the behalf of the Skills and Education Group. We are delighted to recognise the change that these organisations are making within their communities and their ongoing commitment to adult learning.”

We caught up with Journey’s Project and Adult Signpost Haverhill, the London Regional winner and the National winner respectively, after the event to find out more about their motivations for their projects and what winning the Social Impact Award means to them and their communities.

What was the need you saw in your community that inspired you to start the project?

Adult Signpost: We were repeatedly coming across young people who were referred to us that were very isolated and had a low mood, many didn’t venture outside unless they were meeting up with us. The loneliness they felt, and the lack of confidence was starting to impact their daily lives. They were becoming more withdrawn and anxious. We wanted to take action and make a difference. We decided they needed to meet people in a similar situation to themselves and they needed to have a sense of belonging. So, we started off “Signpost” as a lunch club where we would just chat. We then started to look at activities that we could do as a group, we then looked at learning as a group and rolled out with the help of WEA a varied timetable of learning opportunities. As their knowledge improved it grew their confidence and relationships within the group flourished. They now often meet up outside of the group and are committed to supporting each other in a positive way. 

Journey’s Project: There was a need for service users in the mental health community at St Charles Hospital to come together on a creative project, from across the wards to share, connect and find mutual support to look at the highs and lows of mental health. The project gave us the opportunity for individuals to find agency in their own recovery journeys in a unique and innovative way that we all had a part in shaping and creating. The opportunity to do this with the WEA’s wonderful tutor Stewart and the Playground theatre, creating a safe space for us to create, led by Anthony who directed our voices, gave us a platform to share stories and bear witness to them. 

Was there a significant moment which stood out to you where you realised the impact you were having on others?

AS: There have been lots of good news stories. Most recently it was perhaps getting a positive result from a client that was very hard to reach initially, the young person has additional supportive needs and we worked with them for a long period of time. They finally secured, for them a dream job, an opportunity that allowed them to feel proud and be a valued part of the community.

JP: Around three sessions into the project, there was the most incredible atmosphere of excitement, togetherness and creativity that took expectations away from people and united us in our theme of Journeys. Each moment led us on to the next with the power of connections, seeing people who had long term stays on the wards finding ways to contribute their own resilience skills, it reminded people that they are capable of so much, and that creativity is everyone’s birthright. Mental illness can be very isolating, this project transformed that experience, seeing people build networks and honeycombs of connections that saw them through hospital to home with a sense of community that had been out of reach before. Something incredible happened and has continued thereafter. Powerful and moving.

How has receiving the Social Impact award made you feel?

AS: Proud of all the people that have been part of the project and all those that have benefited from it, happy for all those that have put in hard work and made it happen.

JP: On behalf of the Service user voice, I feel we have found a groundbreaking, fresh and unique way to unite each other in the struggles and highs of mental health. It is hard to describe how amazing this feels, to have this work recognised with the Award for Social Impact.  The feedback and support from our service users and their loved ones who attended, who saw their friends and relatives transformed, and who were moved and inspired by their Journeys, it was a highpoint of my life that I will never forget, none of us will and we all felt that together.

Looking to the future, what are you plans for 2020 since receiving the award?

AS: We have already successfully added a junior signpost to our project offer list in direct response to the success of Adult Signpost. In early 2020 we are further adding a “toddler and me signpost” which will see us working with lone/young parents and their children.  We look forward to encouraging this group to take positive next steps by supporting them to learn new skills and to help them recognise their true potential.

JP: We are committed to continuing this project, with another Well Written season already midway and a presentation planned for the theatre on a theme of Back and Forth with our writers, some from the original group and some new voices. The enthusiasm, sense of value and community that this first project and the award has inspired, has confirmed that this work must continue. Plans to continue this programme with the WEA and with the passionate support of June and others who are delighted at the impact of this work, are already underway with massive support. We would like to thank you from our hearts for supporting this award. To be present with two of our writers on the awards night, Laura and Katherine, together with Stewart and Anthony was another moment none of us will forget. The crucial part of this work is that each person has brought their own value to the project and that remains a constant in life through the up’s and downs. We can celebrate our creativity, and when the limits are removed from expectations of those with mental illness, we have proved that we can make something extraordinary happen.