Masses of help for the masses

9th December 2005 at 00:00
True to its Victorian ideals, the Working Men's college is still a place for pursuing aspirations, says Stephen Jones

Miradije Gecaj is neither a man, nor does she work. Yet if there was such a thing as a "typical" student at London's Working Men's college, then she would be it.

Like many students at the curiously named college, she is female, local, and studying on the large basic-skillsEsol (English for speakers of other languages) programme which accounts for 50 per cent of the institution's current workload.

After fleeing the war in her native Kosova in 1991, Miradije had constantly promised herself that she would resume her interrupted education once her children had grown up. "Often I walked past the college with my pushchairs," she says. "I said to myself: one day I will come here."

Now that she is inside, rather than outside, the college's main centre, Miradije is studying Esol, with the intention of taking up a childcare course in the New Year. "My English is really improving now," she says, "and I'm getting lots of grammar."

As its name implies, the Working Men's college was set up in another age - 1854 to be precise. Then, it was the project of a group of eminent Victorian Christian socialists who set out to provide a "liberal education"

for the unlettered masses. FD Maurice, the college's founding father and first principal, wanted to give his early students political economy and theology. Like later adult educators, however, he found that what the punters wanted was not necessarily what the principal thought they should have. Instead of politics, they opted for English, maths, music and drawing. Boxing class, run by Tom Hughes of Tom Brown's Schooldays fame, proved to be a much bigger draw than Maurice's bible class.

Despite the proletarian name, only around half of the first students worked with their hands rather than brain. According to the college's historian, JFC Harrison: "Of the 145 students enrolled in the first term, 72 were manual workers and 73 were clerks, shopmen and lower-paid professional men."

One man who was a worker, though hardly a typical one, was John Roebuck. A wood turner by trade, Roebuck taught himself the rudiments of English and maths before going on to write for radical newspapers. Within a couple of years, he had begun teaching others how to read and write.

Another exceptional student of the time was George Tansley. Despite leaving school at 11, Tansley was never a "worker", joining his father's business at an early age and later running it himself. Aged 19 and desperate for knowledge, he came upon a poster advertising the college and signed up for the very first class.

By today's standards, Tansley would be seen as something of a swot.

Harrison reports that, after only three short years of part-time study - classes could only run once the long working day was over - Tansley "had reached the most advanced level of study the college could offer"

qualifying in bible history, English history, English grammar, mechanics, statics and dynamics". Almost as an afterthought we are told that he had already gained "certificates of competency in arithmetic, algebra and Euclid".

He too became a renowned teacher and administrator at the college. And this might interest the bean counters at the LSC: all the early teachers worked for nothing, and amazingly that volunteer tradition continued until comparatively recently. Art is still an important part of the college's offering.

Mark Hadley, who spent three years at the college before progressing on to the prestigious Camberwell art school, says: "A lot of the enjoyment of studying at this place is to do with the lecturers. When I was here I wanted to grab them by the ears and shake the knowledge out of them."

Mark, now 44, escaped to London in his teens from an oppressive father and "the culture of football" in his native North-east. "I always wanted to do art, but up there I couldn't just sit in my room and draw. It was this place that gave me the confidence to do that." He has led a colourful life, working in fashion, interior design, millinery and, for a time, the porn industry. "I was behind the camera," he's quick to point out. The college, he feels, has set him on his real path in life: "The structure of the place is about learning and enjoying your learning."

Although some things have remained constant, there have been big changes in the college, whose main building is close to St Pancras station, in recent years. Principal Satnam Gill describes how, when he was given the job in the late Nineties, the college was "completely on its last legs" and ripe for takeover by a nearby FE college. It had just received a damning inspection report and, out of a budget of under pound;1 million, losses were running at Pounds 300,000 per year.

He made changes. Out went the academic studies and some of the art. In came basic skills, Esol and basic IT. "I wanted to offer local people chances.

To go back to giving students a second chance."

Extracts from: A History of the Working Men's College 1854-1954, by JFC Harrison, Routledge and Kegan Paul

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