Save Our WI Judges

For many large organisations, a mission statement states its overall aim. On their website, The National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI) says their mission is “To create a world where women come together to learn, share skills and work together to become active citizens, influencing change to improve lives in their local, national and global communities.”

In 1988 I joined the W.I to learn primarily about the skills of Preservation. At that time I was living in Worcestershire, with access to many kilos of fruit and vegetables from a kitchen garden. In 1995 I became  an NFWI Preservation Judge. By the end of 2024, the NFWI’s programmes for training Judges in all disciplines will end. This decision has implications for the future of how many competitions will be judged, the standard of preserves made by competitors and judges, the loss of educating women within the WI in the skills and knowledge of Preservation.

History of Preservation Education 

In 1932, following a letter from  the Deputy Secretary of NFWI to Professor Barker at the University of Bristol, courses were established in the Teaching of Fruit Preservation at the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester to women within the WI. The three day  courses taught the students how to to give demonstrations and present talks about making preserves. There were practical demonstrations, followed by evaluations ( called criticisms). At the end of  three days there were practical tests.

In the summer of 1949, the University of Bristol’s Department of Agriculture and Horticulture Research Station  at Long Ashton offered new full time courses in Preservation and the Judging of Fruit and Vegetables ( 19 days ), Preservation of Fruit and Vegetables (11 days) and the Judging of Preserved Fruit and Vegetables (4 days) . These full time courses of instruction were designed to meet the needs of nominees of UK  County and Borough Education Committees, students of Domestic Science, and others. There were written and practical examinations. The Judging course included:-

How to design show schedules,

Practice in judging

The mark scheme

The writing of comments and competition reports

The responsibilities of judges and stewards

 Tests in practical judging.

To take the Judging of Preserves course, students had completed successfully a University of Bristol’s course in the  Preservation of Fruit and Vegetables. Both courses had tests and exams. Courses continued to be organised by Long Ashton until 1977 when the Food Preservation Section was closed and NFWI became the chief provider of Preservation education.

By 1980, NFWI had appointed a full time Home Economics Adviser, Pat Hesketh who was instrumental in establishing my route to becoming a Preservation Judge, based on the model from Long Ashton. I completed a certificate in the Preservation of Fruit and Vegetables followed by a Judging Certificate. Pat Hesketh and the other tutors who taught me, notably Susan Jervis from Shropshire, Margaret Hanford from Leicestershire and Sybil Norcott from Cheshire had high personal standards in Preservation and only a few women I have met since have matched their standard.

They helped me through some intense courses of instruction in the making and judging of preserves. Those were followed by two years of supervised practical judging, shadowing judges and judging as a trainee. Each course had assessments and examinations. I became a Preservation Judge with an up to date knowledge of preserves, an ability to evaluate entries and a desire to encourage exhibitors. I learnt that NFWI Judges must be impartial, suppress preferences and avoid developing a personal resistance to a type of preserve. Now, when I receive a schedule for judging, I check which preserves are in the competition, If I haven’t made any of the preserves for a while, and if the season allows, I will make them. It reminds me of the skills required for each preserve to be made successfully, and enables me to comment with authority on the jars I judge.

By 2000 the number of women seeking education in Home Economics declined, around the time the NFWI decided to move away from their Jam and Jerusalem strap line, to attract younger members and the certificated courses in Home Economics and Crafts were discontinued. By 2012 there was a shortage of WI Cookery and Preserves Judges and show secretaries were lobbying NFWI for new judges. That prompted the reintroduction of courses. During the years of COVID restrictions, online teaching was introduced as a way of maintaining training.

Standards of Preserves

Competitions are a window on to the standard of preserves made by the home cook. They encourage me to keep making preserves and maintain my standard. Both are under threat if WI Judges become extinct. Since 2000, the number of recipes for preserves online and in print has grown and many are fundamentally flawed. There has never been a better time for WI Preserves Judges to be actively judging competitions, to help entrants understand the principles of domestic preservation. In my early days judging competitions, I was often inspired by a preserve I had not come across and I would return home keen to make it. My interest in making liqueurs came from being asked to judge them at a Village Show. I still make them and occasionally enter one in a competition to check my standard and to remind myself what it feels like to be an entrant. 

Volunteer Judges

During my years of judging, I have noticed a change in the content of written comments at competitions. Many I read are far from constructive, due largely to a lack of of training, knowledge and expertise by individuals who are asked to judge preserves at competitions and a reluctance to give helpful feedback for fear of upsetting the entrant. The Marmalade Awards receives thousands of entries each year and many are not judged by WI Judges, as was the case when I won the competition in 2008. Comments now are often enthusiastic about the marmalade, but do not suggest how the marmalade might be improved. In the example below, an entrant  receiving 18/20 might wonder why the comments don’t explain why the two marks were lost .

The future

As set out in its mission statement, NFWI are committed to educating women and share skills. For those who are members of Women’s Institutes, monthly meetings often provide opportunities to learn skills in a wide range of practical crafts. Up until 2020, members could access practical courses at Denman College. I was fortunate to teach courses in  Preserves at Denman and many of my students have gone  on to win top awards in competitions. In 2022 when Denman College was sold, a valuable teaching resource for Preserves and other practical skills was lost. 

Following a consultation of Federations and Judges in 2023 the NFWI Board at its March 2024 meeting agreed to discontinue the LLA ( Laser Learning Awards), the Judges training forthwith. It seems the gold standard of judging has been buried by the organisation who inherited it from Long Ashton.

The implications of this ill founded  decision are wide ranging. There will be a return to the years at the turn of the century, when there was a shortage of Judges. As the current generation of Judges retire, competitions are likely to be judged chiefly by enthusiasts who have not been lucky enough to undergo the rigorous training I experienced.

In the letter sent to Judges from NFWI in April 2024, “it was felt that this programme no longer effectively contributed to the charitable objectives and strategic vision of NFWI”. A group of Judges has been in contact with Melissa Green NFWI Chief Executive, who has given assurance that Judges are still valued and in future responsibility for Judges’ training will fall to the Federations. 

However, given that only 27 out of 69 Federations completed the survey about Judges in October 2023, and when I reflect on the education and training I experienced, I remain pessimistic that local training will happen, to the same standards. 

The following questions come to mind.

Do Federations have access to the kitchen facilities necessary to teach and  assess Preservation courses, a precursor to a Judge’s Preserves Certificate ? My own Federation, Somerset does not own a suitable kitchen.

Where will the tutors for Preservation courses come from?  If there are tutors, will the Federations have the budget to pay for them? What qualifications and experience will tutors have?

How will the content of Federation courses be standardised and moderated?
Will the training costs for the Judges be the same in each Federation?
How will trainee Judges acquire experience in practical judging and for how long a period? How will CPD be managed?

How will the services of Judges be advertised? Will they still be called WI Judges?

Until these questions are answered, a diminishing number of Judges will be left to keep the decades old standards alive. 

Vivien Lloyd
 May 2024