I’m a labour activist and party member. I fully support the values of the party and where I can (as someone with a full time job and two children) I help out to try and get Labour representation at all levels of government. However, I feel the need to highlight something which hasn’t been handled well, and if possible ask the advice of anyone who reads this if there’s anything we can do to remedy the current situation. Anyway, here goes (watch out – it’s a long one)…
An incomprehensible series of events over the past few months has made the ultimate closure of a valuable asset to the cause of adult literacy in Wigan more likely.
Wigan & Leigh “boasts” several areas which feature in the bottom end of the country’s index of social deprivation. Among the problems encountered here are worklessness, drug and alcohol addiction and teenage pregnancy. Underlying many of the stories behind the figures is widespread illiteracy and innumeracy. The causes of poor literacy in adulthood are many and varied: each individual has their own story to tell. In many, the cause is social, endemic, and has effectively been passed down through generations as parents struggle to help their children at school as their own parents struggled to help them. The inability to read, write and use numbers well in turn causes employment and social problems, and a vicious cycle is set in train.
My mother in law started out some years ago working as a tutor in adult basic education at Wigan & Leigh college. She was working in the community outreach section, but ended up resigning as she believed there was no real understanding on the College’s part of the extent of the problem or commitment to running basic skills classes in community venues. She felt the college administration didn’t fully appreciate the extent to which adults with literacy and numeracy problems see entering the college buildings as a barrier. When you only have negative experiences of educational institutions and certainly do not see yourself as a “student” or “learner”, why would you voluntarily enter one and admit to having a problem which you’re really embarrassed about, and is commonly socially stigmatised? The second major barrier was that a minimum class size of 8 was imposed: without 8 learners, a course could not be funded and classes were closed. As the average group size was 6 this stipulation was unworkable in the given context.
Shortly after leaving the college, my mother in law was approached by the Chamber of Commerce to run a 6 week pilot running adult basic education in the community. The pilot was a runaway success. Out of this, the organisation “Working Wonders” was born.
Over the years, drawing funding from a number of sources, but principally from Wigan MBC, Working Wonders has helped between 700 and 1000 learners per year to gain qualifications, confidence, increase their literacy and numeracy levels, and in some cases, completely transform their lives. Some of the case studies read like fairy tales. They have, for some folk, truly been working wonders.
Partly because of its humble beginnings, administration overheads and management salaries have always been kept low. The focus on channelling funding to tutors salaries and ensuring maximum possible provision has always been at the core of Working Wonders’ budgeting. The directors have only ever taken a fraction of the salary enjoyed by public sector managers at a similar level. For several years, Working Wonders exceeded all enrolment and achievement targets that were set by their funding providers.
Indeed, Working Wonders has shown quite clearly that adults will return to education to improve their literacy and numeracy skills if, in the first instance, the approach is right, the venue is right, classes are held at times to suit and the tuition is friendly, informal and individualised and it has shown that this strategy is successful in helping people go on to gain employment and have the same life chances as others.
A change in management at Wigan MBC’s ACL department has changed this situation. The council officer with whom Working Wonders had worked for years, who saw the gap that Working Wonders filled, and supported the organisation, retired. New management meant a new focus away from basic skills and what was derisively termed “the special relationship” between Working Wonders and the council was over. This meant that Working Wonders had to seek other ways of funding what they saw as the core deliverable for them: reaching and helping the “hard to reach” learners with the lowest skills in the most deprived areas of Wigan & Leigh.They were advised that applying for Train To Gain funding was a way forward, as well as running ECDL courses for the Council. Principally these second courses (the likes of flower arranging and nail art) could be used as stepping stones to make contact with relevant learners, and then leverage this contact to access other funding for literacy and numeracy teaching.
This course of action was adopted, as they were assured by a consultant, who had worked in the relevant sector for years, that this was pretty much the only way forward available to them.
It was while they were effectively re-structuring the organisation to accommodate ECDL Courses (which, what a shock, it turns out *weren’t* the pathway to other funding, they were just a pathway to more ECDL Course subscriptions) that it transpired that their successful application for Train To Gain funding had triggered an Ofsted inspection.
Here is where the current nightmare really begins. Had Working Wonders not been transforming to cater for ECDL, they might have had a fighting chance of preparing for Ofsted in a meaningful way. As it was, their belief that funding should be spent on delivering courses and not on management has been their death warrant. According to Ofsted, if it’s not written down, it didn’t happen. Therefore, if you can’t afford the high levels of administation Ofsted see as essential, the service is “inadequate” and it’s not their problem if the service stops because of their findings.
Working Wonders had always provided sufficient and accurate evidential reports for funding bodies and they had their own management information system for this. However, for work funded through the Council they had to use the Council’s TERMS management information system, which was not designed to cope with the roll-on, roll-off courses that Working Wonders delivered. This was an on-going problem which was compounded by the decision, by the previously-mentioned consultant to commission, in the run up to the Ofsted, a new management information system which (the supplier of the new system even admitted) provided no additional functionality and brought with it a significant training and reporting overhead.
The Ofsted inspection was a train wreck. The inspectors clearly had no concept of how a small company runs, which sharply contrasts with a large college. They failed to see the purpose of Working Wonders community-based service stating that people could go to College for help. Unbelievably, they also failed to understand that often it can take an adult months to improve their basic skills to the point where they are ready to achieve a qualification. The Lead Inspector said she had worked in a prison where inmates had achieved a qualification within two days and she saw this as the expected norm. The inspectors studiously ignored the positive evidence given by many learners about the service and instead focussed on what they saw as negatives. They considered nothing unless it had been written down and produced immediately on demand and they behaved from the start as though the conclusions they reached were pre-determined.
After a very unpleasant week, Working Wonders were graded an across the board “inadequate”, including the judgement, that in time proved to be the most crushing – that they lacked the ability to improve. The lead inspector acknowledged as they were leaving that this would quite possibly mean the closure of Working Wonders. She derisively informed my mother in law that the work that the company was doing in the borough was “nothing special” and people all over the country were doing the same work.
As a consequence of this series of decisions, Working Wonders have now, for the past few months, been unable to get any funding to continue the important work they do. Decisions that have been made by career council officers whose main concern is protecting their own position; by consultants who have been trusted and paid to advise the organisation, but who make sure that their own backs are covered, and their own income from future consulting work (for the council & LSC) is assured; by inspectors who stay in 5 star hotels a 3/4 hour drive from home, demand bowls of fruit on their meeting tables and expect inspectees to agree that black is white or face being downgraded, and who blindly apply an inappropriate and subjectively applied set of rules. In the meantime, an organisation run by hard-working, relatively low-paid workers is biting the dust, putting around 40 tutors, support and development workers out of work.
Adding insult to injury, Train to Gain have now decided that they must claw back some of the funding because their inconsistent rules about entry levels were applied wrongly according to today’s interpretation of those rules.
It may be true that organisations across the country are doing the same work as Working Wonders. I sincerely hope they are. No-one else in Wigan & Leigh is, though. And very soon, in spite of herculean effort, probably no-one will be.
Working Wonders are still operating in some areas of Wigan, and in West Lancashire, where they have been very successful, but these areas are not sustainable on their own. Ironically, Ofsted may now decide that as Working Wonders are not currently providing any training for which an inspection would be relevant, they are not to be re-tested, so changes made in response to the poor inspection have apparently been in vain, and the organisation cannot now be shown to be improving and any hope of regaining the funding sources that have been lost due to the original inspection is lost. This decision is pending: Ofsted, if you’re listening, please reconsider & give Working Wonders at least a fighting chance of showing some improvement.
Our Labour government has pledged millions of pounds to help literacy and numeracy levels in the deprived areas of this country. Unfortunately, the current system means that this money is delivered through a mechanism that is engineered to cut out organisations that are small enough to be responsive to the needs of the exact people it is intended to help.
The Wigan & Leigh MPs have been very supportive, and have done their best to persuade the relevant decision makers that they are making the wrong decision in withdrawing support for Working Wonders, but it is looking like their intervention is not enough. Indeed, there seems to be a “who do they think they are” attitude from the (Labour-run) council.
Working Wonders is having to close its doors. Working Wonders was graded “inadequate” by Ofsted, because of this report, the Learning and Skills Council have withdrawn their support, Wigan Council have withdrawn their support, Wigan’s Adult and Community Learning have also withdrawn their support. However, Working Wonders reputation among the thousands of ordinary people it has helped since 2003 and its reputation with community groups and community centres is second to none. I know whose opinion I trust.
I feel better for getting that off my chest, anyway. I guess my point is that although I understand that checks and balances are important to ensure that public money is well spent, and we get value for money (although the admin overhead which is apparently demanded means we don’t get the value for money that we *should* get), it must be appropriate checks & balances. The strictures put in place by the current system ensure that those most in need won’t get help.
In the main, when Wigan MBC Councillors have been approached they have at best been indifferent. They are the ones who should be directing officers to implement government policy on a local level.
I will almost certainly get in trouble from someone for posting this, but it seems unacceptable that a valuable resource like Working Wonders which has produced tangible, life-changing benefits for hundreds of people in the borough should disappear without a fight, or at least those responsible being made to feel embarrassed.