Protestors picket Sunderland City Hall demanding rethink as '1,600 learners face being cut off' under changes

The WEA has been providing tuition within the community since 1903.
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Campaigners have picketed Sunderland City Hall in a protest against plans they say will deprive hundreds of people of the chance to learn.

The Workers' Educational Association (WEA) aims to bring adult education within reach of everyone, with courses on a huge range of subjects held in the community.

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Protestors say a recent decision by the new North East Mayoral Combined Authority (NEMCA) to cut funding for sessions across Wearside in favour of concentrating on college education will see more than 1,600 learners cut off from lessons.

They claim the WEA's focus on providing learning in familiar community settings means some of the most vulnerable people in society will be particularly hard hit.

The protestors outside City HallThe protestors outside City Hall
The protestors outside City Hall

And they say efforts to contact the NEMCA and Sunderland City Council leader Cllr Graham Miller have been unsuccessful.

Gabrielle Hedley, from Houghton, is a carer for son Charlie, give, who is autistic. She attends courses with mother-in law Carole Hudson: "I have been doing couple of courses, in arts and craft and cookery, for over a year now," said Gabrielle, from Houghton.

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"It just gets you out of the house, gives you a bit of confidence. "

She is dreading an end to classes: "It would kill me," she said.

"I would never be able to get out, I would just vegetate in the house.

"The WEA classes have been a life saver for so many of us. If we didn't have the courses, then we’d just be doing nothing. They’ve helped us improve our confidence, helped us improve our self-esteem. They get us out there.

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"The people who run the courses at the WEA are amazing. It’s been awful for all of us having this in the background about losing funding. We’re all so worried about it.

"Having the threat of losing these courses is really stressing people. We’d be lost without the courses; there’d be no structure to our weeks. That’s why we’re protesting.”

CEO and General Secretary of the WEA, Simon Parkinson said: "We refuse to stand idly by as vital educational opportunities are stripped away from our learners. We have been trying to meet with Dr Henry Kippin, the Interim CEO of NEMCA, and Councillor Miller for weeks to rectify this and explain why WEA not only meets the requirements but is protected by law to receive funding.

"I am proud of our learners for using their democratic right to protest to share the impact that the WEA has had on their lives.

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"Education is a fundamental right and to deprive individuals of the chance to learn, grow, and thrive is wrong."

An NEMCA spokesperson said the authority remained committed to learning in the community: "The new combined authority will make use of its devolved Adult Education Budget (AEB) to achieve its outcomes and improve local skills; helping residents to improve their quality of life and ensuring that employers have residents with the skills their businesses need to grow and thrive. 

"It is establishing a new provider base to deliver AEB through open and competitive procurement processes. The vast majority of providers, such as national providers, will secure contracts in this way following our well-publicised processes. This year, successful providers will be in place from August 2024.

"In addition to this our local FE colleges and local authorities will receive grant funding for AEB activity because of the significant volume of provision they deliver to local residents, including statutory provision and community learning.

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"We are encouraging those providers outside of the grant funding scope to engage with the procurement process and seek to access up to £16m of funding available for academic year 2024-25.

"Throughout this process we are continuing to listen to the views of different learners, providers and stakeholders.

"We recognise that through any process of change there will be an element of disruption – and we are clear about the need to minimise any detriment to learners as a result of this.

"We will ensure that all learners are supported to continue their learning journey as we transition. We want to ensure that Adult Education provision is accessible to all residents across the North East Combined Authority region and will ensure a full list of providers delivering courses is made widely available once procurement processes are complete.

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"Community learning is a priority for the new Combined Authority’s devolved Adult Education Budget, and in addition to grant funded provision of community delivery we have encouraged providers to come forward with a range of innovative courses to support people with health, confidence and wellbeing, as part of their learning journey, alongside the industry aligned courses that will help adults into work.”

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