Blog: Realising the wellbeing benefits of learning through social prescribing

We’ve all seen the negative impact of the pandemic on the health of our communities and some of us may have had personal experiences of this. Repeated lockdowns and uncertainty about the future have led to a deterioration in both physical and mental health for an increasing number of people across the country.  


Adult learning and wellbeing 

With health services stretched to capacity in many areas, alternative and appropriate sources of support for wellbeing have become increasingly important.   
In 2021 Campaign for Learning released a paper called ‘Understanding and overcoming a mental health crisis in 2021’ with expert contributors highlighting the role that adult learning plays in improving wellbeing. One way to support people to realise the wellbeing benefits of adult learning is through social prescribing.  A growing workforce of social prescribers is already linking patients to support in the community. We spoke to a number of adult learning services that are demonstrating how this relatively new approach is already benefiting their residents and learners. 


The growth of social prescribing  

Traditionally mental and physical health has been seen as the remit of health professionals. But often people’s wellbeing is influenced by factors outside their scope. GPs can find they are supporting patients with issues linked to lack of social networks, financial pressures and changes in life circumstances – situations where medication isn’t always the answer. 

Recognising this need for additional patient support, the NHS set a target in their long term plan that by 2023/24 every GP practice in England will have access to a social prescribing link worker.

Social prescribing link workers help patients address their physical and mental health and wellbeing by connecting them to sources of support within the community. This can range from referrals to arts groups to debt advice to supporting people to take up volunteering.  


Learning new skills for improved wellbeing 

A report by New Economics Foundation suggests there are 5 steps to wellbeing and one of these is to ‘keep learning’. Research by NHS Stoke on Trent found that, of the five steps, ‘connect’ and ‘keep learning’ were the most powerful influencers on wellbeing. What’s more,  hands-on learning can be even more beneficial. For example, DIY workshops can help the environment as people mend rather than throw away; and guerilla garden groups show how learning to grow can build community empowerment.  


How can social prescribing work in practice? 

We asked three Adult, Community and Family Learning Providers to share their top tips for successful social prescribing relationships:


Nurture people and places  

Waltham Forest Adult Learning Service (WFALS) in partnership with Waltham Forest Social Prescribing and Waltham Forest Parks Development Team set up a range of creative and horticultural social prescribing courses in blue and green spaces across the borough engaging over 400 residents, many of whom hadn’t participated in learning activities for a long time. Alison Pearson, Subject Coordinator at the award-winning Waltham Forest Adult Learning Service shares her four top tips for a successful partnership. 


Support learners to ensure that they get through and enjoy the session

The first session for many of our learners is a huge hill to climb. Many of them have been isolated for months or even years, so it can be a frightening experience. We ensure that the path from referral to the first session is smooth. We ask referrers to send an introductory email so that learners have a named contact at our organisation. If additional support is required, prescribers or support workers are welcome to attend and support the learner. As a service, we have additional learner support available.  

Connect to your community 

We’ve built lots of partnerships in our local community so that holistic learning can take place outside formal settings – this can be beneficial to learners, partners and us. Walthamstow Wetlands, Lloyd Park, and Epping Forest provided space for both creative and horticultural courses and our learners are now taking regular walks in a place they never knew existed previously.

Support your staff 

Prepare lecturers in advance to ensure they are informed and ready to differentiate effectively between learners and offer appropriate individual support during the course. Don’t forget your organisation’s GDPR guidelines and always ask permission before sharing information. 


Put yourself in your learners' shoes 

Make sure that learners have all they need to support their health conditions. This could include motivating learners to venture out of their house and building their confidence to travel and meet new people. We provide access to free tea and coffee for our sessions, which can make a real difference to learners. 


Data and infrastructure can help build a cohesive offer

Lancashire Adult Learning offers community-based courses linked to local needs, health prevalence and priorities. They launched their offer with a taster event, Healthier Hyndburn in partnership with Peel House Medical Practice attracting more than 100 attendees. 

Sarah Haworth, Head of Curriculum for Health & Wellbeing, Horticulture, Family Learning, Art and Humanities at Lancashire Adult Learning gives her insight into supporting wellbeing in the community. 

Find the key people 

The structure within primary health care can be confusing. You may have to knock on lots of doors before you connect to the right people to make things happen. Your local social prescribing service might not even sit within the NHS they may be employed by a local voluntary community organisation like Age UK. 

Use data 

Find out what the health needs are of your local community and create or market courses that address those issues. You can find local information from your borough’s Joint Strategic Needs Assessment, Public Health report or Health and Wellbeing Strategy 

Offer a holistic curriculum 

Following growing interest from families post-Covid, we are launching a revised wellbeing curriculum. Courses will sit under three areas ‘Nature Families’, ‘Healthy Families’ and ‘Creative Wellbeing’ with clear pathways to progression. 


Developing champions in the community 

Much of WEA’s provision focuses on working with disadvantaged groups, particularly through community learning, and falls within the social prescribing agenda. At the WEA, 81% of all learners tell them that their course improved their wellbeing.  
Debbie Gayle, Head of Region at The WEA (North West Region) shares how your learners can be your ambassadors. 


Your learners as your champions 

Part of the Level 3 Certificate for Maternity Support Workers gives learners an understanding of social prescribing. When delivering this we inform learners about WEA courses such as our ESOL Stepping Stones course specifically for mothers whose first language isn’t English.   

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Gurpreet Keila is a Deputy Director (Projects) at Campaign for Learning