Hand and brain

7th March 2003 at 00:00
IT would be remiss to let this year pass without mention of the Workers'

Educational Association, whose centenary is being celebrated this year. The UK's largest voluntary sector provider of adult education, which marked the occasion with an Edinburgh conference last week, was clearly an early advocate of lifelong learning before the term, or perhaps the concept, had been thought of. So it is little wonder that its latter-day imitators are lining up to pay homage.

The WEA has plenty of lessons to teach them about the reasons for its remarkable longevity, not least the importance of a clear and focused purpose. Its origins lay in the unashamedly optimistic assumption that the future lay with "workers by hand and by brain". While this is no longer quite the slogan it was, the current emphasis on workplace learning is a worthy successor.

The association, it should be noted, was particularly careful not to make assumptions about learning requirements: it went into the highways and byways to find out what people wanted and then did its best to deliver, as it still does. The WEA's record is also a reminder that learning means just that - it ought to be about personal intellectual development, not just the labour market.

Perhaps the existence of the WEA was enough to jolt Iain Gray, the Lifelong Learning Minister, to make a very clear statement at its Edinburgh celebrations that his lifelong learning strategy "is stronger for recognising that learning promotes social justice and individual fulfilment, as well as supporting the needs of the economy". Happy birthday, WEA.

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