Women defend 'leisure courses'

The WI has joined the battle to stop the attrition of adult learning opportunities

Joseph Lee

The women's organisation that embarrassed Tony Blair with heckles and slow handclaps in 2000 is backing a campaign to protect adult education.

The National Federation of Women's Institutes has cast off its cosy jam- making and hymn-singing image to join around 60 other organisations in the Campaigning Alliance for Lifelong Learning (CALL).

The WI, which has a long history of involvement in adult education and runs its own college in Oxfordshire, is turning its attention to the government policy that has seen a 1.5 million drop in the number of post- 19s on courses.

Joy Greasley, vice-chair of the federation and a tutor at the WI-run Denman College, said: "When Tony Blair came to the meeting, that's when people started to take us seriously. Although it wasn't necessarily a good thing for Tony Blair, it put us into the spotlight.

"Our stand on things was something that people noticed."

The WI has been a campaigning organisation for decades, taking on issues from equal pay to breast cancer screening.

Ms Greasley said the organisation now wanted to challenge the restriction of educational opportunities for adults.

"We are concerned it's going to cut off our members from something we believe they are entitled to," she said.

"For the people we represent, particularly those in middle age or later, it keeps minds active and provides a healthy outlook on life."

Denman College, set up 60 years ago to provide paid-for residential and daytime courses, offers 6,000 paying students each year hundreds of subjects, ranging from digital photography to history.

It was "leisure courses" such as these that the Government intended to stop funding when it changed its priorities to favour work-based courses through the Train to Gain programme.

Ministers argued that to meet the stringent targets set by Lord Leitch's review of the nation's skills they could not put resources into classes that did not result in recognised qualifications.

But Ms Greasley said that, in her organisation's experience, "leisure courses" were vital and often equipped people with practical skills for employment or improving their community.

As well as the WI, the campaign includes organisations ranging from the Church of England to education bodies such as the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education.

At the launch of the campaign last week, Alan Tuckett, director of Niace, said: "We are here to argue the case that people can be trusted to make judgments about what they need to learn and when they need to learn it."

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Joseph Lee

Joseph Lee is an award-winning freelance education journalist 

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