THE oldest surviving adult education college in Europe has beenproviding lifelong learning for men and women for nearly 150 years.
The Working Men's College in Camden, north-west London, was founded in 1854 by a group of Christian Socialists who wanted to offer skilled working men opportunities for an education in the liberal arts.
The founders felt that education rather than revolution - as preached by the Chartists and the Communist manifesto - was the way to free the working man from his shackles.
Early distinguished supporters and volunteer teachers include Frederick Maurice, John Ruskin, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, George Bernard Shaw, Charles Kingsley, author of The Water Babies, and Tom Hughes who wrote Tom Brown's Schooldays. Later supporters included GM Trevelyan, EM Forster and Seamus Heaney.
Housed in a Grade 2 listed building in Camden Town, the college serves an ethnically diverse area with a high proportion of
asylum-seekers, refugees and the unemployed.
The college is famous for its wide range of visual art courses but also offers everything from basic skills training in numeracy and literacy to advanced IT and computer skills, A-levels and business-related courses.
Satnam Gill, principal since February last year, says that adult education is vitally important in enabling people who have missed out on a basic education earlier in life to catch up at a later stage.
"My parents were both illiterate," he said. "My mum could not read English or any Indian languages, write or add up or anything. My dad had a bit of schooling in Urdu which was no use to him here in Britain.
"I have always felt that we ought to be able to offer people like my parents a chance to get out of that state. I have lived in Camden for more than 22 years, so this job was attractive to me.
"The college is about giving another chance to people who have lost out on a basic education. Essentially this is what life-long learning is all about.
"We have a history of providing adult education over a far wider range than most colleges. If people want to learn how to paint but also how to write in English or add up, we can provide that and I think that is special in the further education sector."
Mr Gill, aged45, did not become principal of the college for the money. In his last post as vice-principal of Newham Sixth Form College he was paid pound;8,000 more a year than the pound;40,000 he now receives at the Working Men's College. Most college principals earn between pound;60,000 and pound;80,000 a year.
The college has had a patchy history in recent years. In 1976 it received a critical inspection report which was particularly damning about the quality of some of the teaching. Over the past decade it has also been loss-making and has had to pay its staff wages from funds generated by a pound;5 million investment fund.
In the past the students elected the principal, who then managed the college with elected students. This invariably led to conflicts with governors. Mr Gill is the first appointed principal and student elections are no more.
Until recently it was funded poorly by the Further Education Funding Council. A few years ago it was being paid pound;3 a unit of activity compared to other London colleges which were getting pound;20 a unit. Last year it achieved equal funding at pound;16.20 a unit.
Now Mr Gill wants to make the college financially viable with steady student growth. Historically it offered only part-time evening classes, but now it is building up day teaching. Around 40 per cent of the students are white Britons, 60 per cent come from elsewhere including refugees from Africa, Kosova and Bosnia, and 40 per cent are unemployed or receiving benefits. Some 27 members of staff are full-time, while 105 are part time.
One of Mr Gill's ambitions is to develop the college's local student following once again.
"During the period when funding was scarce the most successful classes were art classes, costing pound;150 or pound;200 a year," he said. "When you are in financial straits you offer what is most lucrative, but the college drifted away from its central aim of providing a second chance for local adults.
"I want the college to break even, but I also want it to be lively and open during the day and evenings. I want it to be used regularly by local people and to keep to its original aim of helping adults who missed out," he said.
"We are not geared to attracting 16 to 19-year-olds. There are plenty of other local colleges which can do that."