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WEA in Nottingham - Action Learning for Living ALL

A DfE Community Learning | Mental Health Research site 2015/18

The Workers' Educational Association (WEA) in Nottingham was part of the CLMH project from April 2015 to July 2017. In phase-1 (April 2015-July 2016) our project was called 'True Colours'. In the final 4 months of phase-1we reviewed our offer and tested-out our ability to be part of the more robust phase 2 study by recruiting and collecting full research data from 20 new research volunteers each month.

In phase 2, we developed the Action Learning for Living (ALL) model in response to DfE randomly allocating us to intervention Group B (traditional community learning courses to help people bothered by symptoms of mild to moderate mental health problems develop strategies to better manage their symptoms). For phase 2, DfE funded us to engage and collect research data for 264 new research volunteers in the academic year 2016/17. 


Nottingham City is one of the ten most deprived districts in the country and it has high levels of the risk factors that can create poor mental health.  These include significantly worse percentages than the average for England for unemployment and people who live with a limiting long term illness. There are also high percentages of children living in poverty, children in care, family homelessness and 16-18 year old first admissions to the youth justice system which are all wider determinants of a future risk of mental ill-health.

Nationally, WEA identifies health and wellbeing as a potential outcome of adult learning and has a long-standing commitment to developing courses which help promote positive mental health.  The project delivered a webinar which shared some of this work with colleagues in October 2016.  A recent Health and Wellbeing Prospectus and slides from our presentation can be downloaded below.

Learning from Phase 1 delivery

We've collated some notes about Phase 1 delivery into a padlet presentation (see below).  There are also some case studies from this pilot stage on our external project  website.

Phase 2

We recruited people via existing partners or outreach work.  We contacted a wide range of local agencies which included: doctors' surgeries, housing associations, drug and alcohol rehabilitation services, community venues/centres, libraries, creative art centres and clubs.  We also circulated information to WEA volunteers and WEA branches in the city.  Our information and advice (IA) workers attended events held by community organisations such as the Women’s Centre, the Nottingham Writers' Studio and local job/employment fairs.  

  • We found it challenging: to find the most appropriate contact to target information sharing within an organisation; to get people’s sustained attention and a response without persistence over a period of time; to get the marketing offer ‘right’ and, because we work only in rented outreach centres, to find the right ‘base’ and contact details to encourage people to come for interview as the next step in the process.  We did not recruit many people to each course.  Even when we created a longer lead in between an IA session and the course start it was not always possible to recruit as many students as we would like to see to create a great community learning environment.   

A textile Christmas wreath and other craft materials on a bench with a box of biscuits and coffee mugs

Once a potential student expressed an interest they attended an Information and Advice (IA) session which is booked via the telephone, electronically or in person if they meet us when we are out and about.  Information from the IA discussion is captured and stored electronically.  

  • We have learned how helpful it can be to discuss with students the how and why of learning and what to expect when you begin to learn using a formal model (Thinking, Getting, Keeping) but using an informal 1-1 approach.  We have identified IA workers develop their skills best by practising on ‘real life’ scenarios.  They need access to peer de-briefing and to regularly share ways of working because the quality of their practice increases incrementally over time.  We found we needed a longer lead in time to set up portable electronic devices to collect  IA information and needed to offer additional support for staff so they could use the equipment confidently.  Even with mifi some connectivity is still poor in outreach venues but, overall, the speed with which information can be processed and reviewed more than makes up for these minor issues.

We delivered a range of creative arts courses for the ALL project. 

  • We have found it challenging  to have the right programme offer.  We have no delivery base so we have to book a venue and tutor for each course on the programme offer.  As recruitment has been slow we have had to cancel at least six planned courses and it is often hard to re-book and deliver an alternative course using a quality venue and a tutor who has relevant training and experience.  We review the offer regularly to try and overcome this. 

Other key learning points are related to staffing.  As project staff work different days and have part-time hours we have found it helpful to have a short online weekly Zoom meeting to update the action log and review progress.  We have found it essential to have clearly defined roles and areas of responsibility and to store all documents electronically in a shared drive.  This both helps prevent duplication of effort and ensures we are all using the right version of a document.

More information about Phase 2 is available from our WEA website link below including tutor and IA briefings; student feedback on what an IA session is like and Alan's blog about project activities.

What next?

We have learned a great deal from this project about how to work effectively with people who declare symptoms of mild or moderate mental health problems.  This especially relates to the impact of having a dedicated Information and Advice worker available to support a student before and during enrolment in learning.   Our reflections related to this aspect of the project are summarised in a short report and two anonymised case studies of research volunteers available to download below: one case study focuses on supporting an individual to join a course; another case study identifies how an individual persisted in learning.

WEA in the East Midlands is sharing the findings of its work with the wider WEA which continues to prioritise addressing health inequalities through community learning.   We are keen to develop more local partnerships that focus on learning linked to health literacy and health self-management strategies alongside existing work targeted at vulnerable adults in the county and city of Nottingham. 

Where next?