North East Fife Book Group

Our North East Fife Online Book Group recently completed another successful ‘Lockdown term’. WEA have worked closely with our Fife CLD colleagues in the North East to ensure the course has been promoted and marketed across the area. This preparatory work proved very worthwhile as the group started well and has gone from strength to strength. Despite some apprehension around the use of online platforms (Zoom) and one or two small technical issues at the start, the course has quickly become a welcome part of the week for the participating members, very few of whom knew each other prior to the sessions starting in June 2020. 

Friendships have been forged and the weekly meetings have proven to be a welcome break, embraced by all, from the stresses and strains of everyday life at this time. Members of the group are from across the NE Fife area and the online delivery and accessibility has been particularly useful for this group in this area of Fife. As the largest area of Fife by some margin the NE by its nature and geography necessitates learners must often travel longer distances to attend this type of community adult learning opportunity. Zoom, as long as the participants are online and have access to appropriate devices, removes the potential cost (financial and time) of travelling to and from home to venue and back. NE Fife as an area suffers from relatively high levels of fuel poverty so online access to this type of opportunity is an important option for local learners. 

The group participants are all 50+ and avid readers. Our excellent and knowledgeable tutor Wendy Pearson has developed a strong rapport with the group and has enjoyed the experience of facilitating and watching it develop into an important weekly meeting in the learners diaries. 

Attendance continues to be high with 12 regular participants – with new learners waiting to start - and the next term is already booked. It is fair to say the NE Fife Book Group has already become a welcome fixture in the calendar for the members.

As part of Fife Councils in depth 3-Year Evaluation of WEA’s delivery in Fife, Fife Council CLD visited (virtually) several courses and spoke to learners about their experience and thoughts on their course and in particular their experience of online learning with WEA via Zoom. Nine North East Fife Book Group learners were able to attend this additional Evaluation meeting. Almost all confirmed they had been new to Zoom and online learning but were very complimentary regarding WEAs support and that of their tutor. 

What was conveyed very powerfully and unequivocally by all the learners was just how important this group, and the bonds it had created, was for the individual learners and the collective group. The session was full of memorable comments and feedback including:

‘It’s just been tremendous! People that I didn’t know, the variety of views. I’ve come to appreciate it immensely.’

‘This [NE Fife] is rural Fife, we would never have met and come together if it wasn’t for this. You can join from the comfort of your own home! The whole thing has just been wonderful. I’ve learnt a lot academically but the support group side of things has been invaluable.’

‘It has been a life-saver as I was shielding; meeting new people and learning.’

‘I’ve never been to a book group before. I’m really enjoying it. I’m usually exhausted after the two hours!’

Finally, a candid description of the impact from one learner who informed us she was autistic:

‘I don’t have a car and I won’t travel by bus as it’s too dangerous at this time [due to Covid]. If the funding stopped it would cut me out of everything. It’s a lot easier and safer to be online but we are still getting the contact with everyone. 

I wouldn’t have joined if the course hadn’t been online. It allows people to open up and express themselves honestly. The fact that it is free is also important to me.’

Next Steps Programme 

WEA continue to work closely with our partners at South West Fife CLD and Fife College. Following on from successful partnership organisation and delivery of Political Literacies, and Empowering Ourselves and Our Communities courses the same partners have worked together to design and deliver an innovative pilot programme for 17- 24 year olds: The Next Steps Programme.

The programme was devised in response to young people from the South West Fife (SW Fife) area expressing concern over the lack of viable next step provision from school and Employability programmes such as Activity Agreement. Young people who had initially taken part in established employability pathways were then supported to move to college or work. These opportunities were however invariably delivered outside of their local area. In addition, many of the young people felt that they were not emotionally or psychologically ready for the transition but due to the other programmes timescales they had to move along the pathway and take the next step.  

The young people found themselves having to navigate situations with which they were unfamiliar which resulted in a negative impact on their mental health and self-esteem. Many have had issues in the school system with poor attendance due to a variety of reasons including: mental health issues; learning needs; bullying; and family issues. This meant they missed significant periods of schooling and had not developed peer group relations that could help them in the longer term. 

With a view to addressing this, the young people were engaged and asked what they wanted and what they felt would benefit them. They wanted more qualifications, but delivered in a supportive, local environment. They also wanted to learn about wider issues such as the world around them, local and wider politics, and topics such as history, psychology, sociology and debating. In addition, they wanted to work on building their resilience and self-esteem.
 
By the time the research and programme development had been completed and we were in a position to respond fully to the highlighted needs we were in the grip of the pandemic. 

WEA Scotland supported lead partner SW Fife CLD, and Fife College in designing and organising the holistic pilot model.  

WEA have delivered a Social Studies type flexible non-accredited curriculum to meet the needs and interests of the learners and with a view to building self-confidence, communication skills and self-esteem. The sessions have been delivered online and have proved challenging but ultimately successful. We have aimed to help learners find their 'place in society' and ability to empower themselves and become more active in their communities. Under Lockdown some of these ambitions have been difficult to achieve in full but learner and partner evaluation has evidenced the benefits of the course. WEA delivered weekly tutor-led Zoom classes covering topics and subject areas of need and interest to the group. Subjects covered were diverse and wide-ranging, including WW2, Mental Health awareness and the history of Global Pandemics!  This was run on a workshop basis with healthy debate and discussion encouraged. 

Fife College offered a package of Level 5 qualifications including Communications, Numeracy and ICT as well as a Personal Development Award. Through the project the participants were introduced to different members of the college such as Guidance staff and relevant tutors. The learners also matriculated. Overall this gave them a good feel for and understanding of college and the expectations. 

SW Fife CLD Youth Work staff delivered a range of learning including: 6 Pillars of Self Esteem and 7 Habits of Effective working to the group. They also worked on a community-based project that encouraged exploring the local area and working together to improve it. 
During the first six months of the programme there were typically four sessions per week: 1 WEA; 1 Fife College and 2 CLD. This provided participants with a varied, flexible and holistic curriculum. Feedback has been very positive and the ten young people who have participated to date have appreciated the range and diversity of learning on offer and available to them. 

Some of the highlights to date include: one young person has a volunteer work placement with Pitreavie Golf course to explore his interest in green keeping. Another is starting Early Years and Childcare at Fife College in September. Others are awaiting interview at various FE colleges to study Digital Media and one has applied to study Animation at University. 

Feedback from Participants included

“I liked the different ways of leaning from each tutor – it made it interesting for me”

“Having my own device meant I could take part all the time instead of sharing with my brother”

“I didn’t know anyone on the course but they are all really nice to me and they have made me feel welcome. I have made friends I will stay in touch with”

The programme resumes in August.

Methil History Group

We recently met up with our Methil History Group. The group which has been running for around two years has undertaken the transition from face to face in a quite a different way to the vast majority of our courses since the pandemic started to impact. Rather than meet on Zoom (or another teleconference platform) the learners made it clear their preference was to connect via a regular weekly Conference telephone call. The group did not feel compelled to use Zoom and felt most comfortable on the phone. The learners are all retired and live in the Levenmouth area. Several have been shielding and each has felt keenly the effects of social isolation. The learners, along with Marion Thomson, WEA course tutor/ facilitator from the groups inception, provided a wealth of information on what they did in the group and what it meant to them. 

Over the last couple of years they have delved deep into the history of Methil and the surrounding area and sought to find reasons for and answers to Methils industrial decline and changing face. They have studied and discussed, amongst many other topics: Mining in the area; ‘The Dancing’ over the decades (venues, music, clothes, dances, styles etc); connections to the slave trade; and local institutions such as the Sailors Rest and Paxton Nursery. The learners made it abundantly clear that although they value and enjoy very much the educational aspect of the group the continued social connection at this time is as important if not more so. Along with CORRA Methil (our partner in the organisation of the history group), WEA and Marion have provided the members with the continuity of service they needed and enabled them to meet, learn and catch up with their fellow group members on a weekly basis via a platform of their choice.

On the group and what they had covered recently members told us: 

‘We’re getting so much interest in different things! Going away and searching ourselves.’

‘We’ve been trying to find out why Methil is now so deprived. It used to be thriving.’

‘I enjoy the research, history is my thing’

They may only meet for a couple of hours a week but the impact on their wellbeing has been considerable. In terms of the group continuing to meet since lockdown and what is has meant to them they told us:

‘It’s great, it keeps you in contact with everyone.’

‘We look forward to it!’ 

‘It gave me a real focus when I was locked in here by myself.’

‘The more you talk the more you realise all the connections!’

Before we finished up the evaluation one learner told us ‘I’ve loved every minute of it. It’s been absolutely wonderful!’, the final closing comment form another was:

‘Without the group I don’t know what I would have done.’ 

The powerful feedback and impact statements from the group members made me more aware than ever of the importance of staying connected at this time. Especially important for older and more vulnerable and isolated members of our communities. 

As always WEA have listened to our learners and worked hard to meet their needs as individuals and as a collective, delivering learning and a positive beneficial experience for all involved in a way the learners and group have chosen. In this case by Conference Call. As one of the group told us ‘it’s not face to face but it is the next best thing’. 

Reasons for food poverty 

This introductory workshop and discussion was facilitated by WEA and attended by activists and community workers in North East Fife area. We are currently working with NE Fife CLD to build on this initial session and intend starting a new Political Literacies/ Community Empowerment course for those who participated. 

Feedback was extremely positive. Comments included: 

‘Really interesting..discussing poverty..socialisation of poverty.. This would be good in future...really stimulating discussion’

‘Need for network to be there. This type of event reinforces this and makes us stronger. We need to come together and research the info...break isolation ..These events build a sense of community. As individuals we are more isolated, working alone.’

‘Today’s conversation was fun...and problematic, highlighting issues we deal with supporting communities.’

‘Thanks for organizing time to reflect on our work. It is a luxury sometimes to stop and think .. what and why are we doing things? Take time to think about the why. We need to keep conversations and networks going!’

Introduction to South American Novels

This short taster course delivered to learners in Fife and Edinburgh proved hugely popular! 25 learners attended and the feedback was glowing.

Those in attendance told us:

"Excellent introduction to an area of literature I know so little about. I am really excited about our term ahead!’

"What a privilege to be given an overview by Fiona MacKintosh from Edinburgh University. She has such a warm, informal approach but is certainly expert in her field"

"This really helps me to approach our term ahead with a better understanding of the context.  It would be great to do this before any of our themed terms. It gives us such a good base to start our reading from" 

Plans are already underway to run this as a longer course starting soon!

Workplace ESOL - Fife    

We recently delivered workplace ESOL classes to migrant staff at Kettle Produce in Fife. This was originally intended to be delivered on site but was delivered online. Learners joined these Zoom classes from home and from the workplace (where their training room had been set up for them to access and join online). 

Kettle and its staff have not been immune from the current pandemic. The need for ESOL to be made available to all staff is particularly important in this type of large factory which like many others across Scotland has a high percentage of non-native speaking staff. The dangers of staff being unable to understand and follow crucial Health and Safety and PPE instruction is very real. Accessible, high quality ESOL online is one way to address this. 

Online ESOL 

We continue to deliver a broad range of ESOL in Edinburgh through Scottish Government funding. Due to the current situation our courses are again being delivered online this year utilising Zoom and Canvas. 

Four well attended courses are currently being delivered. Each course improving the skills profile of the learners and helping them progress. The majority of learners have no relevant qualifications or if they do the qualifications are from their home countries. Improving their English and communication skills is key for them to progress. 

The four courses have been running over the summer with the focus on improving skills in language, employability, and digital. 

There are two employability courses, one aimed at learners looking for work, and the other at learners who are in work but who want to improve their prospects. The digital skills course is focused on introducing learners to the digital skills required to be part of everyday life. The fourth course is an ESOL Elementary level course.

ESOL for Employability

Learners have been studying traditional employability skills such as job hunting, CV writing, personal, statements, and interviews. There has been particular emphasis on competency-based interviews and transferable skills.

The course has also covered the current employability landscape in Scotland post-COVID lockdown, and what employers are looking for. The students have also been learning how to navigate the wider issues surrounding employment such as P45/60s, tax codes, national living wage, union membership, NI contributions, types of contracts and so on. 

We have also examined inter-cultural differences and how these may affect them in the workplace. They are now aware of equalities legislation and their employee rights.

The resources used have been a mixture of job-seeking websites such as Indeed, Government Gateway, work-related ESOL resources such as those from the SQA and the British Council, as well as the materials on the Commons section of Canvas.

ESOL for Work and Employability

The majority of this class are underemployed i.e. working below their qualifications and capability. The aim of the course is to help them to function more effectively in their current workplace and, for those that want a career change, to have the confidence to apply for jobs that match their skills.

This course has an additional focus on in-work skills, transferable skills, recognition of prior learning and employment, and dealing with challenges at work.

The language component of the course has focused on a work-based context, with a selection of authentic resources as well as those mentioned above.

ESOL for Digital Skills

The majority of this group are functioning well in their own language on a variety of digital platforms, but lack the knowledge of how similar programmes and websites function in English.

Topics so far have included: email; Microsoft Word; PowerPoint presentations; using YouTube (creating playlists, loading videos onto a personal channel etc); internet shopping (advantages and pitfalls, comparison websites); Facebook; selling online – Ebay and Amazon; making a digital book for family and friends.

We have also looked at wider issues concerning the digital age such as: intergenerational internet use; the environmental impact of online shopping; avoiding scammers; and text speak.

Elementary ESOL 

This online course has been very well attended. Nationalities include Bengali, Turkish, Chinese, Syrian and Polish to name but a few. 

Learners have been taught a number of tenses; present simple/past simple, present continuous, future simple and present continuous (for future arrangements). Learners have been given the opportunity to use these tenses in conversations with other learners and the tutor. At the start of each session, the tutor asks the learners to ask each other what they did that week and what they plan to do in the week ahead.  This has given the learners much needed 'talk time' to increase their confidence in communicating with others in a safe and non-judgemental space.

Homework has been given regularly; worksheets and Wordwall activities, but also questions relating to the individual learner.  

Online learning has given the tutor greater scope to use a wider range of resources; Wordwall activities, live worksheets, Youtube videos along with the standard grammar resources and tutor developed worksheets.

Feedback on all four courses to date has been positive with the employability students commenting on the fact that they have learnt a lot of useful information about working in Scotland beyond just language. They are becoming more confident in imagining a brighter future where they can utilise skills and qualifications gained in their own countries.

The digital skills students have been able to explore areas about which they had only a superficial knowledge, if any, and have realised that they can take part in common online activities without language being a barrier. 

The Elementary learners have said they particularly like the tutor asking about their lives and their daily routines and the friendly and fun environment that has been created. 

Theatre Studies

The Edinburgh based Theatre Studies groups have met for many, many years and it is fair to say, are a mature cohort. Made up entirely of women learners ranging in age from 60 to late 80’s, the majority in their late 70s and 80s. Nothing exceptional in all that you may feel and you may be right. The beauty of what has happened with these two groups over the last year is that Liz Hare, their longstanding and highly respected WEA tutor has almost seamlessly managed to transfer them online without missing a beat. She grabbed the bull by the horns from day one, and ensured these were some of the first courses delivered online by WEA in Scotland post lockdown. 

The easy option would have been for WEA and our tutor to say we didn’t feel it was possible or appropriate to try to migrate these groups online. In truth, as WEA AEM, I had my doubts. The older learners might not take to the new-fangled ways. They probably wouldn’t have access to devices or wi-fi. They definitely would not like Zoom! 

How wrong I was! The tutor merely transferred her excellent facilitation skills to the online environment and allowed the camaraderie, friendship and support network that WEA Lothian Theatre Studies provides to continue to flourish. Learners who have known each other for a long time, learning together, but perhaps more importantly looking out for and after one another. 

Bonded by a love of attending and subsequently discussing live theatre performances in Edinburgh they have managed to recapture the magic through the use of technology. Watching performances online and debating and exploring afterwards on Zoom (even inviting guest speakers: actors, writers to join them online for Q&As). 

In total the two groups currently attract around 25 participants. Not all the original members made the transition to online but the majority have and regular evaluation tells us they are very pleased they did. Learners recently told us:

‘I’m delighted we are still managing to meet and learn together. This group means so much to me and I would there would be a huge gap if we hadn’t been able to continue.’

These courses mean more than adult and lifelong learning. Much more. They are a fixture in the diary that has taken on even more importance during the pandemic. I make a point of visiting the groups each term to carry out evaluation. I am always made welcome but feel very much the interloper eating into their time. After all they want to speak to their tutor and each other, chew over the play they have watched or simply catch up with their good friends.

Book Talk and Exploring Books

These two Lothian based learner groups have also continued to meet and flourish online. Despite being a mature group - the majority are retired – they have embraced the use of Zoom and greatly appreciate the opportunity to meet and learn and continue as close to normal as possible.  

Many of the learners from these groups are isolated and in many cases quite vulnerable. The chance to meet and learn, chat and laugh cannot be underestimated at this time. The learners look out for each other and this is a valuable outlet for all involved.

A selection of recently captured feedback from members of these two groups encapsulates their impact very eloquently and powerfully:

‘The WEA Exploring Books Group has been an essential for me since my retirement - a group of respectful, intelligent, convivial people, expertly led as now by Wendy Pearson, that selects interesting books to read, explore and have lively discussions often at its best with the books we find most challenging. The coronavirus pandemic presented only a small challenge as it quickly transferred to electronic media and mastered it including enjoyable break-out groups. It was decided to have an additional summer term in 2020 which was a great additional benefit in that year and the only negative thing has been that it has lost a few members because they had no access or wanted to use electronic media. I believe it fulfils all the criteria of the WEA ethos for education.’

‘Our Fridays have helped keep my brain doing something constructive and a good diversion from everything that’s been going on.  It’s helped me to feel that the months of lockdown are not just wasted time. The discussions are lively and engaging. The time we spend checking in with how everyone is doing makes the atmosphere so supportive.’

"The Zoom meetings of Exploring books have been for me welcome, enjoyable and relevant. Although missing the personal contact, I personally feel we have got to know each other better throughout this period. Thank you to you and to our able leader Wendy".

‘Being able to continue attending Exploring Books via Zoom over the past year has been a lifeline, especially for those of us who live alone.’