A hundred years of giving learners what they want

Next year sees the centenary of an organisation which sounds like an anachronism, admits to being a peculiar animal and yet has arguably never been stronger.

Robert Lochrie, UK general secretary of the Workers' Educational Association, concedes that policy-makers have trouble in understanding the peculiarity of a mainstream further education institution which is also one of the largest voluntary organisations in the country.

"In the short term at least," Mr Lochrie says, "it is to the WEA's advantage to be treated as if it were a college - while making it clear to all and sundry that we are not."

The association's ability to survive and thrive in a century of change is explained by Joyce Connon, Scottish secretary in charge of 12 area managers and 200 tutors who last year delivered classes in more than 230 localities to in excess of 14,000 students.

"We were founded in 1903 and were definitely about providing learning opportunities for working class people who knew they had intellect but didn't have opportunity," she says. "It was a culture where you had reading rooms in miners' institutes and a philosophy that if you educated the working class you could change the world.

"When the Government opened up access to higher education in the 1960s and 1970s and lots of people from trades backgrounds were going to university, the WEA's focus shifted. We began to reach out to people who didn't believe that education could be for them."

Lack of confidence is a major issue for would-be learners, and those who have written themselves off. "I don't believe that adult education should be about compensating for the failures of the school system," Ms Connon says. "But you do encounter people whose school experience was not wonderful and they are not about to enrol at the local FE college."

The way in which the WEA works is not to say: "We're putting on a photography class on Tuesday night, come along." Instead, it goes into communities and workplaces to find out what people want and then construct learning which also delivers core competencies.

A health visitor might invite the association to work with a group of young mums or talk to the local playgroup.

"Tutors then offer a menu of topics to get started," Ms Connon says. "You build up a learning programme around the issues - which might be about healthy eating on a budget or learning through play - and the tutors build up the learning experience while building in the core skills of literacy and so on through the issues which people themselves have identified. That takes a lot of talent and skill."

The WEA's biggest development of recent years in Scotland has been in workplace learning. A long-standing partnership with the public sector union Unison has included Return to Learning (R2L) classes taken by more than 700 employees of health trusts and boards in the past two years.

A further 1,200 will benefit from a new initiative, funded by the Scottish Executive and taking in every health trust in the country. "They see improving the skills of ancillary workers as very important in developing a quality health service while we see it as an opportunity for people to progress in their own lives and make choices," Ms Connon says.

Similar backing is coming from the social work inspectorate in a project involving 80 courses and more than 1,000 students. Everyone working in social care will soon have to register, and to do so they must have the relevant SVQs.

Ms Connon says: "A lot of the most experienced care workers have not studied for years, so it's quite daunting. There's every possibility that people in areas of high employment will just decide to get a job in a shop instead. So we will work with them to give them confidence to study."

Even this level of support may not be enough in an economy and society where one adult in five does not have adequate everyday literacy and numeracy skills. The WEA is negotiating funding for starter courses to help people prepare for the relatively undemanding R2L courses.

The public sector might seem a predictable place for the WEA to operate, but it is also active in the private sector. With European funding, it is working with 30 or so small and medium-sized enterprises - varying from social care to technology manufacturing - on job rotation.

This concept, pioneered by a sister organisation in Denmark, involves training unemployed people to fill in for employees released on paid educational leave which is also tailored by the WEA.

This means looking not only at core skills and workplace demands, but also at personal intellectual development. It is this commitment to a broad learning agenda rather than plain vocational education which sets the WEA apart and echoes its origins.

ON TO THE GLOBAL STAGE

Next year's celebrations start early as the WEA hosts a Unesco conference on October 4 in Glasgow's Mitchell Theatre.

"Unesco's goals for world learning include reducing by 50 per cent the number of adults with literacy problems and giving every adult access to continuing education throughout life," Joyce Connon, the WEA's Scottish secretary, says.

"We will be discussing the exchange of expertise and experiences between Scotland and the developing world."

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