WEA Women in the Highlands Project Ourselves, Our Communities

Encouraging women to become connected, empowered and discuss together ideas, and consider their potential to promote change for themselves and their communities.

The WEA Women In The Highlands (WITH) project has been running since summer 2017 – engaging with women to help remove barriers caused by rural isolation, poverty and inequality. It encourages women to consider what matters to them, at home, at work and in the wider community. The project is funded by the Scottish Government through their Promoting Equality and Cohesion fund. The fund is managed by Inspriring Scotland. 

Through offering events and meetings women are able to connect from across the Highlands to discuss what is important to them, share knowledge and consider how they can increase their community engagement to make a positive difference to society.  Workshops, courses and training events enable women to develop new skills and learn in order to reach their potential. 

When the face to face meetings and courses, being delivered in community centres, had to close last March, WITH transferred its delivery to on-line using Zoom and Canvas as the e-learning platform.  To ensure that WITH continued to provide what was interesting to women and relevant to their needs a series of on line taster sessions was first presented by WITH tutors. The topics considered women’s place in their community, art, writing and subjects that could support women to cope in the face of the pandemic. 42 women enrolled on these initial taster sessions and contributed to the design of the courses that followed.

Since March 2020 WITH has had 155 enrolments and delivered a total of 16 on-line courses  covering topics ranging from art, writing, a book group, yoga, mindfulness, community issues and digital skills. There have been huge benefits to transferring online because women from islands and small communities have been able to attend, who would have difficulty travelling or accessing face to face meetings. We have regular attendance from women from Skye, Jura and many small communities. This has really achieved the goal of overcoming rural barriers. One woman said “Living in a small community on an island, lockdown restrictions and the care of my elderly mother meant I had little outside contact  and no opportunity to attend courses etc other than on line.   The course gave me a chance to focus on something outside my normal life”.

Several of the courses have extended into second or third rounds of presentations as the women pursue themes and issues relevant to them. The Women’s Book Group are now meeting for the third ‘term’ considering women authors who’s writing resonates with them as Highland women. They note “the important contribution such books bring to our understanding of social history and about how much has changed and yet how much still needs to be addressed to reduce inequality and unjust practises”. The women’s writing course develops writing skills, and is a source of support and inspiration. 
WITH does not aim to be a mental health project but there are clear benefits to women having the opportunity to connect together in supporting, affirming spaces. With the increased pressure of the pandemic the yoga and mindfulness have enabled women to strengthen their resilience and support their mental and physical health and well-being. Women have reflected that “I learned new skills that I am able to use in everyday activities in my life - stretching and breathing in particular” and “it has supported me to cope”.

Two digital courses have been popular with women, who have increased the confidence in using IT to remain connected and support their ability to work from home. One woman of 84 said of Developing Digital Confidence course "WITH is a great project. This class has made me think a lot and stretched me beyond my limited knowledge. I knew a little about Facebook but this course has expanded my use and I've learned lots of new things. It's not been easy but there have been many gains. It's been an eye opener. I just wanted to say how much I have enjoyed the 'Developing Digital Confidence' course with Hazel and wanted to express how much I have gained from these sessions. I hope we will be able to continue and develop this course in some way. It is a big subject and I feel I have just begun to become a little bit excited about it. (aged 84)

Three different art courses have enabled women to explore a personal journey, relieve stress by just focusing on the ‘art’ in front of them and experience being successful without judgement. This success is confidence building with women more likely to continue to try something new. 
One personal journey in art  
is explained by Sheena Gow who said “Participation in the courses has increased my confidence in my abilities – I have always enjoyed “playing” with arts and crafts, but the courses encouraged me to develop this further.  Sharing with others and the discussions we had around the work we each produced was affirming and inspirational – an opportunity to look at new ways of doing things, different techniques etc in a very non-threatening environment. I now feel more confident to share my work with others and to explore new ideas”.


Another course explored the way we all generate negative automatic thoughts and gave some strategies, through art for looking at some of their origins and for 'challenging' them – here are some pieces of work


Independent Book Group

An outcome of WITH is for women to go on to form independent groups and we now have an independent book group, who formed after the first 8 week course.  One member explained “We continue to meet as an independent group, devising our own schedule and syllabus. We never run out of conversation”. She went on to say that it was attending the WITH course that gave them the confidence to continue meeting on their own.


We have had a student/volunteer with us since February this year, who is a great example of the WITH project can achieve:
In January this year, WITH was contacted by Amanda Gilmour, a woman who had attended some WITH creative writing events and who wanted to volunteer with the project. She said “I was inspired and empowered by various local writing tutors, including Mairi who runs your creative writing course”. 

She described the positive influence of attending some of the project events and how it gave her the confidence to enrol on a course to further her ambitions.
“At aged thirty-seven, I became a university undergraduate for the first time. I had wanted to study creative writing for twenty years, but I didn’t believe I was good enough until I attended two of her (Mairi’s) classes and I knew that I wanted to teach women to write” 

Amanda went on to enrol on a writing degree at the University of the Highlands and Islands and explained “I am a third year Creative Writing BA (Hons) undergraduate and I am required to undertake a work placement. I immediately thought of the WEA WITH project, as my own aims fit with the project aims. I want to inspire, encourage, and empower women in the area of creative writing, broaden horizons and help them gain access to opportunities that otherwise might have been out of reach”.

Harriet Tay, Project Organiser for WITH says that having Amanda as a student volunteer has benefitted everyone – the tutors, the women attending the courses, as well as Amanda. The WITH writing tutor has reflected that Amanda’s confidence, ability and knowledge have grown. Amanda also attended the Women’s Book Group course where the tutor commented that “regarding support available for potential writers, Amanda was able to contribute much to this” and “she brings knowledge and understanding that really enhances the group discussions”.
Amanda said that Mairi (Writing Group) was an “excellent tutor” and she “has been a great mentor too”. At the book group she said “observing how Wendy tutors will give me an even deeper insight into tuition at the WEA”.

Amanda hopes to continue her volunteering role by contributing to another WITH project that will place women’s poetry in public places to enrich our community spaces and town centres.

Poetry in Public Places

WITH enables women to connect together and share their ideas.  Finding other women with similar concerns and goals is confidence-building and empowering. The Poetry in Public Places project stems from discussions at a weekly women’s meeting. The women were passionate about making a difference to their communities and particularly improving the visual appearance of own town centres. 

One woman, Angela, who had engaged with the project for several years was inspired by the potential of poetry to enrich public places. WITH is now taking entries of thought-provoking poems from women that will be displayed in museums, libraries, university campuses, shopping centres to name a few. The aim is to make connections with people and inspire. 

Angela explains “the reason I wanted to get this project off the ground was to give a voice to Highland women. There are so many talented women in the Highlands, some of whom have never had the chance to shine. This project is a perfect spotlight for those voices”.

Connecting women in the Scottish Highlands and Islands and Palestine

The Highlands and Islands-Palestine Women’s Network came together for the first time this week to discuss what it means to be a woman in society, what we have in common and how we can build relationships between each other and our communities. The video meeting between representatives of ADWAR (Roles for Social Change) in Palestine, WiTH (Women in the Highlands) and HiMRA (Highlands and Islands Refugee and Migrant Advocacy), was coordinated by Highland-Palestine and was the result of several weeks of discussions to build a supportive women’s network between the two communities. Each of the three groups share the aims of supporting women, particularly those in marginalised areas or vulnerable situations, through education, access and advocacy to empower individuals to improve their circumstances and those of their families and communities. 

There have now been three meetings of the three groups with a different focus of discussion, chosen by the women.

Lana Hisham, project manager for ADWAR, described the challenges facing women engaging in her organisation, including some areas that lack basic services. Here we see the women from the three groups enjoying our discussion together.  A total of 17 women attended the most recent meeting, however internet connection is a permanent challenge in some areas of Palestine so many women had to re-join the meeting due to loss of connection.        

The newly-formed women’s network generated a number of practical and creative suggestions for joint activity including challenging gender roles and sharing the rich cultural heritage of both communities. The meetings have confirmed that women share the same concerns and priorities around having the ability to be confident, educated and have influence over creating better futures for all women. One women from Palestine described the latest meeting as “an affirming experience”. The supportive network will continue to meet on a monthly basis.

Highland Employability Project

The Highland Employability Project started in mid 2019 and is aimed at helping the unemployed improve their life circumstances by moving toward full-time work. We started out as mainly helping the long-term unemployed, but the project has expanded and we now work with a broad range of learners who are facing multiple barriers. The programme is funded by the European Social Fund, and Scottish Government, and run in partnership with the Highland Council Employability Support Team. We are referred learners from all over the Highlands and from many different agencies. Our main learner base is referred to us by the DWP, though we also have learners from the Criminal Justice Service, Enable, and Social Services to name a few. 

Although our main outcome for our learners is to get into work and be supporting themselves, some are not ready for this level of independence. We are referred people who need assistance with all stages of the employability pipeline. After referral, it is up to our team to design a bespoke course for our learners built around their individual needs. Whether this is mentoring and giving them support to feel confident enough to start thinking about employment, or brushing up their CVs and interview skills.  If our learners need them, we are also able to offer bespoke 1-1 courses with SQA accredited qualifications in Employability, ICT or Communications. This makes it a wonderfully flexible and holistic project that is learner centred. Our aims are orientated towards an end goal of employment, volunteering or education. 

We started off in 2019 with one tutor covering one job centre in Invergordon, which in the Highlands has a massive geographic spread. In 2020, we took on two more tutors to cover another two job centres in Dingwall in Ross-shire, and Portree, on the Isle of Skye. This year we are looking to expand with another 3 tutors to meet the growing demand for employability support in our areas. This allows us to have coverage of the West, north, and centre of the Highlands. Since the project began in 2019, we have registered over 130 people. Many of these are now in full time work or have gone on to do degrees or vocational training. In Invergordon we cleared the two longest standing NEET claimants, much to the joy of the DWP staff.  One is in university and one is in a full-time paid position, and both are excelling.

While the DWP has provision to see people on a regular basis they have no ongoing network to assist claimants who need that extra bit of support and attention. This is where we can step in and make a difference. Toward the end of 2020, WEA Highland began offering courses as well as 1-1 provision. We've offered SQA Level 4 Employability Skills, SQA Level 3 & 4 Communication, SQA Level 4 ICT, and two bespoke courses designed by our specialist tutors: Maintaining a Positive Attitude, and Developing Digital Confidence. Since Covid-19 pushed all of our delivery online, enrolment in these courses are not geographically constrained, and we have learners from every part of the Highlands.
Our Maintaining a Positive Attitude Course (MPA) is designed to allow people to process the Covid-19 situation and arm them with the tools they need to overcome their personal barriers and move forward in their lives. The first group bonded so well together and enjoyed the support so much that they continue to meet once a week on Zoom even though the course has been finished for months. This is a massive achievement as this group of 8 people have found a sense of strength and community as a result of their experience with WEA. 

At the beginning of lockdown when the WEA moved to teaching digitally, we were made aware that The Libertie Project, the Highland Council, and WEA Scotland were allocating digital devices to people living locally who didn’t have one. These devices were aimed at those whose lives were made difficult during the pandemic because they lacked the means of communicating with services, friends and family. Many of our learners are welfare recipients, generally rural and often digitally challenged. Over the course of the lockdown, the WEA Highland Employability team have collected over 42 laptops, tablets, and data packages, and distributed them all over our local areas, to the great benefit of our learners. These devices have been used to attend WEA courses, keep in touch with family and friends, stay abreast of the situation with Covid and lockdowns, and to contact services like DWP and NHS. We have learners that have done qualifications only because they have access to a computer and feel empowered to connect with the world. 

Here are a few brief case studies of people who have received devices and what their devices have meant to them.

When WEA tutor Lucy met Victoria, she had just finished all her probationary activities after getting into quite a lot of trouble when she was a bit younger. She had moved home a few times in her last year at school and had no qualifications at all.  She wanted to work in the care industry but was overwhelmed by the implications of her criminal record, her past activities and her lack of qualifications. She was determined to improve her situation and get some qualifications and so during lockdown she signed up with WEA and committed to our employability programme. Victoria stayed in constant contact with Lucy who supported her through an SQA L4 Employability course which she passed with flying colours. At the time, Victoria didn’t even have a laptop and she did all the coursework on her phone. 

Lucy managed to secure a laptop for Victoria through the Connecting Scotland programme and she then enrolled on an SQA in Communications which she completed to a very high standard.  At the same time, Victoria has been working on a Level 2 Health and Hygiene course with the DWP – having started to gain qualifications, Victoria is moving full steam ahead.  She lives with and cares for her Grandmother and has just secured herself a full-time job working in the care industry which has been her ultimate goal. Recently, Victoria committed to a L4 SQA in ICT offered by the WEA Highland Employability project that starts in April 2021. 

Victoria is a real example of dedication; she has made the best of the lockdown and the opportunities that were offered to her, determined to change her situation and do better for herself She is a real role model to any young person who has strayed down the wrong path - with determination and commitment, she’s working hard to improve her life chances and she now has a bright future to look forward to.  

Grant started working with a WEA Highland Employability tutor in 2019. He lives alone in a very rural location in Highland and is on Universal Credit. As the Pandemic hit and Scotland went into lockdown, Grant had no access to his universal credit account or anywhere to do his job search. He used to take the bus into town three days a week to go to the library and search for work and check his emails, but Libraries too were closed. Grant was at a loss about what to do in order to fulfil his commitments for the DWP, adding to the worries and isolation the Covid situation had already caused him. Initially, our employability tutor secured him a tablet with some data so that he could stay connected. About a month later, she swapped for a laptop which has more data attached and has allowed him to keep meeting with his 1-1 tutor and we’re encouraging his to participate in some courses with WEA.
Grant has said that the laptop has changed his life. It gave him something to do in the lock down and saved his sanity as well as allowing him to stay in touch with his job centre advisor, his WEA tutor and still look for work.

ESOL for Syrian Resettlement

In August 2019, the Highland Council contracted the WEA to deliver English classes to support the resettlement and integration of Syrian refugee families resettled in Scotland. Our classes are needs focused, delivering the essential everyday English that our learners really need, enabling them to engage and integrate within their communities. Since 2019, we have been operating with a small team consisting of two ESOL tutors and one Employability tutor: they plan and deliver our programme to learners across Inverness, Dingwall and Alness. Our project is also supported by a team of ESOL volunteers, who play a vital role in supporting the learners’ integration.  
The WEA works in partnership with many organisations across Highland to support the refugee families, enabling us to take a holistic and learner focused approach to our provision. We work alongside organisations such as New Start Highland, the DWP, Highlife Highland, Skills Development Scotland, the Highlands Council, Inverness College to name a few. Together, we work towards supporting the long-term resettlement and integration of learners into our communities.

When the country was placed under lockdown back in March 2020, there were a number of significant challenges facing Syrian refugee ESOL learners in Highland. Until that point, our classes had been taking place face to face, in community centres and schools. A number of our learners had not yet been in the country for six months, meaning their English was very low level and their opportunities for integration were significantly reduced. The majority of our learners had no access to laptops, no digital skills and were at significant risk of social isolation, poor or worsening mental health and disengagement from learning and wider integration. 

Recognising these risks, within a week of lockdown restrictions being put in place, we began the process of transitioning our learners to online learning. Over the next 6 months, the Highlands ESOL team worked tirelessly, teaching learners to use Zoom software and Canvas (our virtual classroom). Many learners were anxious about using these new methods and some were even reluctant, but, over time, they grew in confidence. With the support of funding from the Scottish Refugee Council and the Connecting Scotland Fund, we then set out to ensure every learner in our program was supplied with an appropriate device for learning at home and, as of this month, we have now secured a Chromebook device for every learner/ household studying with us in Highlands. We will have distributed 20 devices into the refugee communities to support their learning, digital skills, connectivity with their families and communities and their search for work. We have been providing Digital Skills classes for our learners since October 2020, teaching learners how to use the internet safely, how to use emails and various essential applications.

We currently deliver over 20 hours of online ESOL, Digital Skills and Employability support for our learners every week, with our average learner receiving between 6 – 8 hours' worth of tuition each week. Learners have access to additional homework materials to study in their free time on Canvas and many of our learners now clock up to 4 hours extra study every week in their free time. In addition, many of our learners regularly access experienced WEA ESOL volunteers for additional language to bolster their learning as well as taking advantage of social and networking opportunities provided through partnerships we have with local organisations such as Highland Multicultural Friends. 
In our most recent evaluations with learners, learners fed back that they now prefer online learning to the previous face to face model. 

“I prefer Zoom and learning on Canvas and my computer. I don’t want to go back to classroom. I like working on computer, it’s good for me and I enjoy it”.
“I like to study, and I like Canvas.  I can study when my children sleep.”
“I enjoy learning English online. I can use Canvas to catch up when I miss classes.”

To tackle the challenge of social isolation during lockdown, we also recognised the importance of maintaining volunteer engagement with the ESOL program, to provide learners with ongoing opportunities to practice their English. We provided a series of training sessions to volunteers on Language Awareness, giving volunteers a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by our learners’ day to day and what they can do to better support them in their learning. Volunteers have regularly joined our ESOL classes online, supporting learners to engage with Canvas and providing additional language practice to those who need it. We plan to continue providing further opportunities for volunteers and learners in the near future in the form of online conversation cafes, further training and more. 

Despite the challenges faced by learners at the beginning of lockdown, the WEA has supported them to overcome and achieve personal goals. During the past year, a number of our learners have successfully transitioned to the local college, found employment, acquired vital new employability skills and, perhaps most importantly, have begun embracing self-directed learning via Canvas. Learners recently scored us 4.36 out of 5 stars for improving their confidence and 100% said that they felt the WEA and their tutor had been responsive to their needs and what they wish to learn.