£1.7m funding blow for education charity supporting thousands in Sheffield

They provide education in community settings for thousands in Sheffield, many from vulnerable backgrounds.

Friday, 23rd July 2021, 9:19 am

But there are today concerns for the future of WEA (Workers' Educational Association) courses after £1.7m of their funding was axed by the Sheffield City Region’s Mayoral Combined Authority.

The charity is seeking urgent talks to see what can be done to salvage the situation and says it was not consulted on the move to cut the money.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, there were 5,000 students on WEA courses across South Yorkshire.

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Before the coronavirus pandemic, there were 5,000 students on WEA courses across South Yorkshire

Chief executive Simon Parkinson said the organisation had a long standing presence in Sheffield, based in Attercliffe, and had been recognised as an education provider alongside organisations such as Northern College, and others, which were still being funded.

He warned: “We’ve got 50 or 60 colleagues at risk of redundancy through this.

"It’s a devastating blow to adult learners.”

Mayor of the Sheffield City Region Dan Jarvis speaks to the media as South Yorkshire moves into Tier 3 lockdown. Picture: Chris Etchells

“Community learning is a lifeline for local people and a line of defence against poverty and inequality. Instead of this lifeline being supported, it is now being put at risk by the MCA failing to address their routine funding needs.

"The pandemic has tipped the balance for too many communities in Sheffield, Rotherham, Doncaster and Barnsley and the MCA needs to act now to resolve this funding issue so we can continue to provide these essential services for those in jeopardy.”

He said he had been trying to speak to city region mayor Dan Jarvis since May 2020 about funding, but had no direct response from him and his office, adding they were duty bound to consult with WEA as a grant funded provider under the terms of their devolution deal.

WYBOURN Pictured at the Wybourn Community Primary school, seen LtoR are, Tina Timmons, Dawn Cox, and Gale Hollis. Children LtoR are, Amba Cox 4, and Emma Hollis.

He added: "Our time is running short, with students due to progress onto further qualifications and courses with us in August and September. But, there is still just enough time for us to come together to agree a funding settlement before August 1 which will support those communities and protect jobs. I can be available whenever Dan is able to meet.”

The WEA employs nearly 100 people in South Yorkshire, from education specialists to tutors and support workers, whose jobs are under threat from August 1.

It works closely with over 120 neighbourhood organisations including Art House, and Voluntary Action Sheffield, whose New Beginnings Project gives refugees and asylum seekers in the city skills and confidence to progress into employment and support their communities.

Helen Steers, interim chief executive at Voluntary Action Sheffield, said: “Voluntary and Community Organisations support the most marginalised communities to access entry-level learning to progress on to higher-skilled training courses. As an infrastructure support organisation for the voluntary and community sector (VCS), we are thoroughly concerned that this decision, given the previous year, will significantly impact people within the city.

"This decision means that for WEA and the wider VCS, there will be no route for those communities to develop the skills to be eligible for higher-level courses. We need to ensure that the most marginalised are supported as we move forward and build back from the pandemic.”

Mum Gale Hollis, from Wybourn, credits the WEA for getting her back into work with new skills after she had her daughter.

Gale attended a WEA course, which led to her getting a job at her local primary school. She is now a higher level teaching assistant at Wybourn Community Primary School, and says many working at schools across the city have got their jobs after taking WEA courses.

She now teaches some of those courses herself.

Gale said: “I had worked at a sweet factory for years before I had my daughter. I had no job when I started a WEA course at the school. It’s been a big step up in my own career after they recognised my qualities. Initially I had gone along to get out of the house.”

She now teaches WEA courses in support work in schools, and a Special Educational Needs course.

She said: “I think what they do is important because for some of our students who come through the door it’s their first step back into education, and it’s done in a familiar setting. It’s like a comfort blanket."

Two of her old students, Rhianne Siddall and Janine Revell, have also got jobs as a result of the course at the same school

Rhianne was unemployed and completed a support work in schools course. She had a job in a secondary school and then moved to Wybourn. She also took a special educational needs course level two

Janine took a special educational needs course – she was initially working as a lunchtime supervisor and now is a teaching assistant.

Both say they progressed their careers as a result of WEA courses.

A spokesperson for the South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority said: “As part of our newly devolved powers over Adult Education funding, we ran a fully open and transparent procurement process to identify the most suitable education providers against a range of criteria.

“It was a competitive process, and all providers were judged against a fixed set of criteria which were set out beforehand and fairly applied. Unfortunately, for this round of contracts, the WEA was not successful.

“We understand that the results will be disappointing to WEA, and will cause disruption to their staff. But we have an obligation to follow the process impartially, and that’s just what we’ve done. Further opportunities are likely for providers to get involved in the delivery of AEB provision in South Yorkshire.

“We’ve appointed an able group of providers to deliver adult education in South Yorkshire, and local residents will be able to access services that are better tailored than ever to their needs.”

“We will keep a close eye on the sector, and as always, we will continually seek to strengthen provision so that gaps are filled and our limited resources produce the strongest possible benefit for our community.”

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Thank you. Nancy Fielder, editor.