Reach Out is a genuinely non-discriminatory project, which values its learners equally. It works with particularly marginalised and vulnerable people, and successfully employs an empowering adult learning approach with many of those for whom the service 'model' would be more likely to be a therapeutic intervention. It is underpinned by WEA values, reflecting equality, and the fundamental importance of using a genuinely student-centred learning approach as a means to raising confidence levels and increasing self esteem - and ultimately changing lives.
The WEA staff do not judge, and are prepared to support the learning journeys of their learners, irrespective of their previous history and on-going issues. The project’s target groups, which include those with long term substance misuse issues, mental health issues, those going through the criminal justice system, and those with learning difficulties/disabilities, are frequently defined by their ‘issue’ – and offered ‘specialist’ interventions/service provision. This is often reflected in ‘silo’ funding, which can mean that the negative identity of alcoholic, unemployed or offender is reinforced.
It is our experience that Reach Out learners greatly value the project’s approach – which is one of equality, focusing on them primarily as people, and not defining them in terms of their ‘issue/s’.
Every group is a mix of learners with various issues. This leads to an atmosphere devoid of stigma where learners feel valued for who they are and don’t feel judged because of past behaviour or because of their own personal problems. Every learner has different experiences and this can lead to a wider sharing of knowledge, where learners’ confidence and self esteem levels are raised. Working in integrated classes helps them prepare for a different future, where they will come across individuals from all walks of life.
The curriculum is student-centred, and the focus of courses and particular sessions negotiated between tutors and the learner group; ‘relevance’ is key in this process; if learners do not see the relevance of the learning to them and their lives – they will vote with their feet. The commitment to listen to learners, showing to them that their voice is heard and actually matters, is a key part of the process of empowerment through student-centred learning. Once a year the project also facilitates a ‘Visioning Day’. Learners, potential learners and referral agencies are invited to give feedback on what has been facilitated so far, and what they feel would be useful in the future. As a result of a conversation between Reach Out staff, learners and referral agencies, for example, the project recently facilitated a one off session with a specialised tutor from NESCU (North east Scotland Credit Union) to gauge interest. The session was a great success and in the future it is planned to offer a more in depth course. This shows that the project is flexible and responsive, and is in a position to make on-going change to programmes as a result of feedback.
A life changed
A learner joined us last year. He is in his 60s and has spent a large portion of his life in prison and his youth in approved school. His last sentence was a life sentence. We decided to take him on at the project because of meetings and telephone conversations we had with criminal justice workers. He is now volunteering in our football group, has taken part in various activities and joined us on the last residential. He now works one day a week for the Samaritans in Dundee and is hoping to go to college to gain a certificate. He knows that because of his past he may not be able to gain employment in the area he feels he could help others the most, but this hasn’t stopped him being enthusiastic about his future and what he can achieve.
This is just example of many that could be used from the Reach Out learner base. It’s fantastic, from a staff point of view, to know that because of engagement and positive reinforcement, not only from staff members and tutors, but also from other learners, that this person feels confident enough to go and take challenges on. Seeing him ‘grow’ as a person, watching how he reflects on past behaviour, how he helps others and the lessons he has learned, makes staff feel that the way they work, the way the courses are facilitated, and the passion they have for social justice is all worthwhile.
If the project is to be developed in other areas of Scotland, it will need funding for development work in the first instance, to work with a range of potential referral agencies to make them aware of the power of this kind of integrated approach. Once they are on board, and prepared to refer their ‘clients’, suitable premises will need to be identified and funded. It is Reach Out’s experience that the anonymity of city centre premises has contributed to its success, whereas more locally-based provision can become stereo-typed and stigmatised. Funding sources will need to be ‘inclusive’ i.e. be prepared to fund work with a range of people with different ‘issues’. The alternative version would be for several pockets of ‘issue-based’ funding to be brought together, through which to jointly fund an integrated approach.
The project will need at least dedicated and enthusiastic, and as it is also our experience that as staff take on a huge amount of pastoral support for learners, an advocacy worker would be useful in the mix of staff skills.
However small a new project starts out, it must be integrated in its approach – i.e. refuse to work with only one type of ‘client’.