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'Use learning to combat loneliness'

Community learning has a vital role to play in tackling the rise of adult loneliness, writes Ruth Spellman

loneliness strategy adult learning community WEA prime minister

Community learning has a vital role to play in tackling the rise of adult loneliness, writes Ruth Spellman

We know loneliness is on the rise and it affects people of all ages. The prime minister herself stated that it was one of the greatest public health challenges of our time.

It is reported that more than 9 million people in the UK across all adult ages are either always or often lonely, and around 200,000 older people have not had a conversation with a friend or relative in more than a month. Especially at this time of year, it can be a very difficult and an isolating time for people.

The devastating effect of loneliness on individuals and communities is well known – from the deterioration of people’s health and wellbeing to extra pressure being put on public services. As many as one in 10 appointments made with GPs can be directly attributed to loneliness, and in the UK, loneliness costs a reported £6,000 per person.  

Add to this the fact that the UK has an ageing population, and it is predicted that the incidence of loneliness is set to increase on a huge scale.

How can community learning help?

The culture of adult learning encourages settings and behaviours that favour connection-making. It can be supportive; inclusive; accessible; respectful; positive and forward-looking; collaborative and social. It also provides a common link – a shared interest in a subject or a shared challenge, but in a largely non-competitive and supported environment. Community-learning courses are also predominately group activities, specifically encouraging people to engage with people in their local area. 

At the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA), we have the evidence and experience to show the vital role adult learning can play in enabling people to become active citizens. We work with about 50,000 students across the UK, running thousands of part-time, community-based courses. In our latest WEA Impact Report, which is based on a survey of 4,000 adult learners, we found that 82 per cent of people who attend our courses make new friends; 97 per cent said it helps to keep their mind active; 64 per cent claimed it increases their self-confidence; and 61 per cent reported that it prompts them to take up new hobbies.

The benefits are seen in even greater numbers when we look at specific groups, for example, carers who are so often forgotten in our society, and who can often feel isolated and lonely, as a result of caring for their loved ones.

Our provision is based around encouraging and assisting personal development in a social setting. Hence people get stronger within themselves and often also become more connected with the people on their courses. Often, it is about having a conversation with another person and creating meaningful connections, which is the thing that matters most to our students. For many, access to courses also helps improve their physical health, self-worth, confidence and strength to integrate with their communities.

Education enables people, whatever their background, to access a new reality. They can enjoy the pleasure of conversation, take their minds away from day-to-day struggles and pressures, and free up their imaginations.

What next?

Adult learning is not intended as a loneliness initiative, yet it still creates hugely beneficial outcomes for individuals and communities.

Looking at the government’s first loneliness strategy, GP referrals of patients experiencing loneliness to community activities is one example of government support for existing practice that can help tackle the issue. This is part of a larger picture: a picture where loneliness is tackled through a great variety of interventions and projects. 

We believe that with increased support and funding for community learning, we could reach out to even more people. This could not only improve people’s quality of life, but also reduce social isolation in communities across the country, enabling people to contribute to their local communities and reducing pressure on already stretched public services.  

As we step into the new year, and what is often referred to as the January Blues, we know there is no one-size-fits-all solution to eradicating the issue. But we are confident that adult learning is one route to help tackle the problem head-on. 

Ruth Spellman is chief executive of the WEA

The WEA is set to launch its New Year, New Course, New Me campaign to encourage people to try a new course in their local community

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