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A Commitment to Tailored Education and Learning

Atwea College (previously WEA Hunter) began more than 100 years ago as a place that provided access to education and learning for workers of the Newcastle/Hunter Valley region. The WEA stood for Workers’ Educational Association and at one stage operated in every state except Western Australia and the Northern Territory. Today it is one of the largest providers of community-based adult learning in NSW, running more than 350 courses, including senior high school studies for marginalised youth.


Recently, in 2019, WEA Hunter was renamed Atwea. The new name doesn’t stand for anything in particular, except that it includes the WEA as a nod to its past. The name change was part of an organisation-wide refresh to acknowledge and promote new, forward-thinking, educational capabilities whilst still building on its reputation for community lifestyle learning. However, ATWEA is so much more than WEA.

Unlocking Potential

Atwea is committed to delivering tailored education and learning options to anyone who wants or needs them. Its tagline is ‘Unlocking Potential’, graphically demonstrated through the use of the waterlily in its logo. Waterlilies grow to fit the size of whatever they are planted in – the larger the vessel, the more they reach their potential. The students are represented by the waterlily, the soil represents the courses, the pot is the opportunity, and the water is the community. When all of these elements work together, they enable the student to reach their full potential. This concept underpins all that Atwea strives for. The values of Atwea College are integrity, inclusion and innovation, which are demonstrated by its ability to create connections and collaborate with people from all walks of life with the aim of helping them unlock their full potential.

Atwea offers skills training in the music industry, hospitality and retail, complementary health and beauty, community and aged care, business and first aid. The focus is on building work-ready skills, and to aid in facilitating this, Atwea College has partnerships with major employers and Job Active Providers to create employment pathways. The Learn for Fun courses that the college is most well-known for include business and money matters, creative arts and music, fitness and outdoors, food, languages and culture, hobbies, home and handicrafts, photography, personal development and computer and IT. Alesco Senior College is for senior secondary students and is the latest addition to the Atwea educational and training options.

Executive Director of Atwea College, Rowan Cox, has made significant contributions to the development and direction of the organisation, inspired by her own adolescence and her passion for education. Rowan has worked at Atwea for 23 years in various capacities, including Manager of VET and Equity, Deputy Director, General Manager and Principal of Alesco Senior College. She has a Bachelor of Social Science (Sociology) and qualifications in education, counselling, youth work and community welfare.

As Executive Director, she is responsible for setting the organisation’s strategic direction, ensuring financial sustainability and overseeing the delivery of vocational and secondary school education. Deeply committed to the transformative powers of education, Rowan loves the organisation’s ‘why not’ attitude. If there is a need for the education and the organisation is capable of providing it, Atwea will make every effort to offer it to students.

Rowan grew up estranged from her family in a small country town with no family support as a teenager. She readily admits that she was prime dropout material and didn’t expect to finish high school. Luckily for Rowan, a few teachers at her country school took a personal interest in her as a young girl, ensuring she met her educational milestones and giving her the chance to move to the next stage of her life.

“All it took was people who connected with me, to give me a chance, to be more flexible in their teaching styles. Education delivered this way has the power to unlock potential, and honestly, if it worked for me, it would work for everyone,” said Rowan, who went on to co-found Alesco, the secondary school arm of Atwea based in part on these experiences.

Alesco is an incredibly successful educational model, rolling out across the Hunter and Mid North Coast with seven campuses and other educational bodies wanting to replicate the methods across the whole of Australia.

Alesco Senior College

“The Alesco aim is to offer education to young people whose circumstances have previously prohibited them from succeeding in mainstream education. This was modelled on my experiences of high school. The well-being and welfare of our students should have equal weighting with educational outcomes. And we found that there was a niche need. We had at-risk and marginalised students who were disenfranchised from mainstream schooling repeatedly coming to Atwea to progress their education. They were coming back all the time, and I recognised and understood the problem and the opportunity that it represented. At Alesco Senior College, we give them autonomy and respect their choices – the same way my teachers did for me all those years ago. It’s about empowerment and support. We’ve had other education providers interested in looking to copy the model all over Australia. Other than my two kids, this is probably my proudest achievement, knowing that I’ve positively influenced the lives of so many young people and given them the same chance that I was given.”

Alesco Senior College is a unique blend of academic teaching with an individualised case management approach set in a community-based adult learning environment. In other words, it’s formal education, but it’s delivered within an informal or non-institutional type of setting. And whilst education is a priority, so is supporting young people to become better future citizens by developing a common set of values based on respect and responsibility for themselves and their community.

The Future of Education

Rowan sees the future of education in micro-credentialing and sees Atwea as well placed to offer this style of learning. The current educational landscape is highly regulated, which impedes flexibility. Fifty years ago, education led to a future pathway; now, education is trying to keep up. Micro-credentialing is about building your own qualifications, having the capacity to pick and choose from different training packages for the explicit needs of a specific job.

The system currently doesn’t allow for this because too many rules govern the courses and how they can be studied. An example of this would be someone studying Business Administration who lands a job in a vet clinic. It may well be advantageous for that person to also do some basic Animal Handling study in addition to business administration, but at present, unless you want to enrol in the entire Animal Handling course, you can’t. Being able to pick and choose components of different courses would benefit not just the student but also the employer and lead to a much more skilled and motivated workforce.

Digital literacy is a critical component of the modern educational landscape, but no one knows what the future holds. Atwea has a policy of keeping tech requirements consistent and available to all, only using what’s required to deliver the expected educational outcomes. It needs to be accessible but not intimidating. Atwea provides courses that cover the full spectrum of the digital learning journey, introducing digital technologies for young people and seniors through to specialised expert training.

Covid Impact

The engagement of students is at the very centre of the Atwea and Alesco philosophies, and the current pandemic situation has led to significant challenges. They’ve had no choice but to shift to a distance delivery model, which is particularly difficult because Atwea students attend the facility partly because they don’t want to learn online. The organisation has developed a Wellbeing & Connectivity Check for thousands of students. This has involved every single employee of Atwea and Alesco getting on the phone and calling students one by one – even the administration staff have been working the phones. Every effort has been made to provide the disadvantaged students at Alesco campuses with the same items they would receive if they were on campus, with care packs in plastic tubs being created full of food, toiletries, and basic staples that they can collect.

“We’re all just waiting for it (Covid-19) to be over,” said Rowan.

“I’m very concerned for our students, what it means for the HSC and study in general. How long will we have to wait?”

The move to online learning has also impacted the Live Spots Emerging Artists Mentoring Program that the college offers music students and emerging practitioners. The program provides training, space and opportunities to live music performers just as they are starting out. Unfortunately, the pandemic has put this program on hold during lockdown.

The Future of Atwea

Atwea has grown 350% over the past five years. That’s an incredible trajectory, but Rowan insists that they didn’t mean for it to happen.

“We don’t believe in growth for growth’s sake – we just don’t do it,” she said.

“What we are, is responsive to the needs of the community. Education for the employment, growth and enjoyment of all people.”

The most significant areas of growth for the organisation have been in the incredible success and demand for the unique Alesco model of senior secondary schools for marginalised and at-risk students and in traineeships. There has been a surge in employers seeking individualised training. “They don’t want cookie-cutter solutions, and unlike other training providers, Atwea can provide that flexibility.”

There have also been two new campuses opened this year. Alesco Charlestown opened in January and now has 40 students. It’s the seventh campus since the Cooks Hill campus opened in 2002 for students from year 9 through to year 12. Other campuses include Raymond Terrace, Tomaree, Tuncurry, Cessnock and Northlakes. The other exciting new campus is the Atwea Health and Beauty Therapy School on Hunter Street in Newcastle. This great fit for purpose learning space includes make-up rooms, tutorial space, student clinics, beauty therapy spaces and all the tech to go along with it.

Atwea vs TAFE

Rowan sees Atwea as complementary to the TAFE system. TAFE, which stands for Technical and Further Education, is the public vocational education arm of the NSW government, set up to educate and train adults. It’s big; Often seen as a one size fits all institution. Atwea is not. Atwea suits individuals who don’t thrive in such big institutions or employers who are seeking a more customised training program. An Atwea course of study is often a precursor to studying at TAFE. It can offer the personalised support required to get a person back into education and provide the confidence to transition to TAFE. Similarly, it can sometimes offer post TAFE qualifications in situations where the person studying requires more specific study to suit a particular job requirement.

“I like to think of TAFE as the QE2 and Atwea as the Stockton Ferry,” laughed Rowan.

“TAFE, like the QE2, can be hard to turn around, a big wieldy ship that can take you far, but we’re the little powerhouse of a ferry that can guide the ship into port or out of it to venture to far horizons.”

From Humble Beginnings

When WEA Hunter was opened in 1913, it wasn’t opened to women. Women were not eligible to enrol until the 1940's.

The fact that it now has a woman in charge would no doubt be a shock to the founders. One imagines, however, that they would still be happy with the legacy and how long the organisation has lasted. The original intent and form of education was to teach the blue-collar workers and miners of the Hunter Region about what was going on in the world around them.

At first, the education took the form of conversations before it developed into community-based adult learning courses.

Atwea is still providing this community-based education to anyone who may have a barrier to it and placing the welfare of its students firmly at the forefront of every choice it makes and everything it does.

This fundamental purpose may have been modernised into a contemporary training institution, but it still exists wholly for the benefit of the students and their communities – not so very different from its humble beginnings.


Check out the Semester 4 Course Guide in the centre of this month’s issue or read online HERE – and get learning!


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