Simon Parkinson: the man fighting for adult education

Manchester-born Parkinson has been championing the underdog his whole career – and now he's fighting for adult education's voice to be heard

Kate Parker

Adult education: Meet WEA's chief executive Simon Parkinson

Aged 16, Simon Parkinson had a choice to make. It was the same choice he says everyone in his home town of Swinton, a small town just outside of Manchester, had: to either work for Barclays bank or for Salford Local Authority. 

Parkinson applied for both, and when a letter came from Barclays to say recruitment needs had not been finalised and that they’d be in touch, his father had to put him straight. “He said, ‘Look son, it’s a nice letdown letter, but it is a letdown. Take the job at the council, and you’ll be sorted for life,'” Parkinson laughs. 

Following his advice, and with just five O levels to his name, Parkinson entered the world of work in the public sector. “And I haven’t looked back,” he says. Throughout his career, he’s held prominent roles at three charities: introducing initiatives to better people’s everyday lives. 

Today, he is chief executive of prestigious adult education charity and provider the Workers' Educational Association (WEA), a role he started in December 2019.


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Supporting people to make real changes

Parkinson’s journey into the charitable sector is a personal one. He was brought up on a council estate just outside of Manchester, his dad a factory worker, his mother a housewife who looked after Parkinson, his brother and two sisters, as well as working part-time “as and when they needed to bring the money in”. 

His brother was born with Down's Syndrome – and after working at Salford Local Authority for a few years, he spotted a job at housing association Golden Lane Housing, sponsored by Mencap, a UK charity for people with learning disabilities. In the role of national manager, he would be able to oversee the creation of thousands of supported houses for adults with disabilities – starting with one house to look after in Wiltshire and growing to more than 1,000 properties over the next 10 years.

The support needed was provided by Mencap and a range of other providers. “Our aim was to make it as normal as possible for somebody to live in their community. So, we were literally playing monopoly, it was fantastic,” he says. 

“You look back on that, and people talk about supporting people to make real changes in their lives but some of the families we worked with thought their son or daughter would be at home for life and we were able to help them realise that there was a different way forward.”

Through a series of internal promotions, Parkinson went on to become director of education, learning and work. It was a natural succession, he says – he’d lead a team to prove that people with learning disabilities could live successfully in their own communities, the next step was to prove they can be economically active and contribute to that community through work. 

“These people don’t only achieve personally, but also for the work colleagues around them; it absolutely smashes the stereotypes, it has such a positive effect in the workplace,” he says. 

Through Mencap’s corporate partnership with the Co-op Group, Parkinson oversaw hundreds of people with learning disabilities getting the chance to work in the Co-op stores. And together with the “brilliant group” of people he worked with, Parkinson was integral to the national Changing Places campaign, which fought for fully accessible toilet facilities for people who are unable to use a standard toilet and making venues of all types more accessible for all. 

Simon Parkinson

After 19 years at Mencap, Parkinson decided that it was time to move on. He wanted the opportunity to try his own hand at being a chief executive – and the Co-operative College seemed like the natural move. He admits that moving up was a “bigger leap” than he thought. He’d been a director at Mencap, a £200 million national organisation five times bigger than the college – he assumed he'd be able to do the job easily.

“It’s a different set of pressures and a different set of leadership challenges –  I think I did OK, but you’d probably have to ask the others,” he laughs. 

“I really liked it, and what the college gave me was the opportunity to spend a lot of time aboard looking at different organisations, different cultures, different ways of working because of the International Co-operative movement. I think that that really helped to know that there are different ways of organising and communicating with people, rather than the ones we just rely on here in the UK.” 

In that role, Parkinson introduced an international study programme, and invited educators from all over the world to visit the Rochdale site, “the birthplace of cooperation”. He says he really enjoyed representing the British co-operative movement to the rest of the world.

Leading the WEA through Covid-19

After five years at the college, Parkinson was approached by the WEA to see if he wanted to apply for the chief executive role. Chair of the college board, Nigel Todd, told Parkinson that if he had to lose him, it was only right that he went on to lead the WEA.

He started in December 2019 – and his 100th day in the job landed on 17 March. He says he sat down with the board and laid out his plan for the next two years – and then a week later, the coronavirus meant he shut the office and sent everyone home. 

He says he’s really proud of what the organisation has achieved. Very quickly, everyone had moved to working from home  – and in receipt of a working-from-home allowance. No-one had been put on furlough – and in a recent staff survey, 95 per cent of staff said they were highly satisfied with how they’ve been supported throughout lockdown.

And when it comes to a high-quality learning offer, Parkinson says they’ve achieved more in three months than they have would have in three years. He’s even sampled some learning himself, taking courses in Spanish, origami and the periodic table. 

“We took a brave decision to make all of our summer programmes free and we've supported thousands of students to carry on studying through Zoom. And we've had really, really positive results,” he says. 

“As an organisation, we were highly nervous about online learning, it's not the traditional WEA way of being in the community in small groups that have known each other for a long time and enjoy studying personally together. To suspend all that and move to virtual learning was a big, big jump but actually the response we've had has been amazing.”

The decision to make summer programmes free was twofold, he says – the skills need is clearly there as unemployment rises, but the need to remain connected with communities is also greater than ever. 

“There's just that sense of connection that comes with learning, we've got some wonderful tutors who have adapted really well to online learning. And we knew it was new to us so we didn't want to be bold enough to say that we can charge a fee while we're learning on the job. But it’s more than that, it’s about keeping people connected and helping them through lockdown,” he says. 

Simon Parkinson

Parkinson says that the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) and the mayoral authorities have been vital in enabling WEA to build and maintain a strong online offer, but that there is a real concern about funding. The organisation has invested a million pounds of charitable reserves – and that they need a settlement from the central government for the next two to four years to ensure they can embed new ways of working. 

Historically, adult education budgets are often slashed, and Parkinson says he isn’t asking for extra money – just a commitment that the government will continue to offer their funding allocation at the current rate for the next three years. 

“We genuinely work in partnership to work through what is, and what will be, and is, a crisis in terms of community-based adult learning, as more and more adults find themselves out of work post-Covid. There's got to be a range of those alternatives, beyond apprenticeships and T levels. The focus is understandably to a point on schools and then general FE, but that's missing the bigger picture,” he says. 

“There's going to be a significantly larger group of adults with low or no formal qualifications that actually need a different journey back towards the world of work, and a much more localised and personalised level of support. That's not going to come through apprenticeships and T levels that's gonna come through community-based adult learning providers.”

Doing the right thing

Parkinson says that the WEA will always offer a national online programme now – but that they are desperate to get their 2,000 community learning centres back open, as soon as it is safe to do so. A part of his role, he says, is to increase the profile of adult learning. 

“I want to work with others to address that issue that we're not on the radar in a way that we should be with policymakers and take that forward so that you know we carry on supporting around 50,000 adult learners a year,” he says. 

Throughout his career, Parkinson says he’s simply tried to do the right thing and have a values-based approach to leadership. And as the adult education sector battles to have its voice heard, Parkinson says he and his team will continue to quietly support hundreds of thousands of adults to reskill, upskill, and go on to successful careers – with or without that recognition from government. 

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