Does exactly what it says in its mantra

2nd October 2009 at 01:00
The WEA prides itself on overcoming barriers to learning, but it faces new barriers of its own. Neil Munro reports

As members of the "WEA family" gather in Glasgow today for their first UK conference to be held in Scotland, they may well be asking themselves: what is so distinctive about the Workers' Educational Association?

In a landscape cluttered with exponents and providers of lifelong learning, the context in which the organisation operates is very changed from its foundation in 1903. It was then unashamedly about educating the "working class" who, as Joyce Connon, its long-serving Scottish secretary, put it, "knew they had intellect but didn't have opportunity".

The assumption which drove its origins has also changed: educate the working class and you will transform the world.

If anything, the emphasis has shifted to a less grandiose but more problematic vision. Instead of reaching out to people hungry for learning, who eventually started to benefit from the mass expansion of further and higher education in the 1960s and 1970s (most notably embodied in the Open University), the WEA had to turn its attention to those who did not believe education was for them. It was a less fertile constituency.

The association nonetheless continues to reach out. In Scotland, it has seven area managers and 216 local tutors who last year delivered classes in more than 300 localities to 12,500 students.

Its range of activities is remarkable still - from classes in philosophy and literacies on the shop floor to working with the Aberdeen Dynamics Youth United football team and the Falkirk Votes for Women Group.

A frequently-heard endorsement of the WEA's efforts is that, without them, students "would never have the courage or the knowledge I needed", as one Alness student described her experience of the Step into Learning course.

Ms Connon says: "We don't say `we're putting on a photography class on Tuesday night, come along'. We work with a range of partners - 350 organisations in 2008-09 - to deliver what individuals and communities define as their learning needs."

It is a mantra which echoes the sentiments of WEA founder Albert Mansbridge, expressed remarkably more than a century ago: "The consumers of education must themselves take an effective part in its organisation". An early 20th century Curriculum for Excellence perhaps?

The WEA now finds itself on rather fallower ground, not because hunger for learning has been fed but because the recession is biting. The bulk of its programmes are free to participants in line with its founding principles. "Our priority is to overcome barriers to learning," Ms Connon says, "and one of these barriers is cost. So we look elsewhere for these costs to be met, and that challenge is getting harder and harder".

The association in Scotland has a patchwork quilt of funding, which she says is "flawed." The Scottish Government provided pound;282,574 in 2008-09, but this was for headquarters costs only. Local authorities gave pound;172,570 to support area organisers and teaching costs, but only 15 of the 32 councils did so. For the rest of its income, the association has to trawl around Europe, various foundations and the Lottery, although it was rather successful in the past year when it negotiated pound;2 million for 77 projects.

Meanwhile, the association tries to keep at the forefront of the educational and political agendas, conscious always that it must remain "distinctive" if it is to survive. The theme of today's conference, of which The TESS is media partner, is "skills for social justice." The debates will be around hot topics such as "who gets access to learning?", "what skills are needed, valued and resourced and which are not?" and "what is the role of adult learning in the society to which we aspire?"

Ms Connon notes that the current economic crisis has brought these issues into sharper focus. "The crisis may be driving policy-makers to make hard choices," she says, "but we hope this does not lose sight of the fact that we need investment in more than vocational skills, however important that is for economic inclusion.

"Some would say that the skills and activities which contribute to social cohesion are even more important in difficult times."

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