Workers' beacon still burns brightly

9th September 2005 at 01:00
When cuts threaten the non-vocational education of adults, the Workers'

Education Association stands out like a beacon.

If further education now offers students second chances, this role was previously filled by the association. Today, the WEA may offer students a third or final chance. Although, as expected of learning that is truly lifelong, that final chance can consist of many courses.

Over the years, the WEA has changed, but its principles remain intact. The joys and stimulation of its classes are available in cities, towns and villages throughout Britain. The WEA has 10,000 courses and 650 branches, with much of the work of running local branches carried out by volunteers.

Indeed, the WEA is also one of the country's leading charities.

It is easy to think of the WEA as providing liberal education courses open to all. But this is only part of the story.

The WEA originated just over a hundred years ago to meet the educational needs of working men and, over time, increasingly women. The intention was to provide high level courses that promoted critical engagement.

The first "tutorial classes" met for three years, for two hours each week and for 24 weeks each year. In addition, students prepared for the classes by reading academic textbooks, with the intention of submitting 12 essays per year.

WEA students made this prolonged commitment not for certificates but because they were interested in knowledge - not abstract knowledge for its own sake, but knowledge for social purpose.

Related to the idea of personal and community development, most WEA classes focused on the study of society. This social focus was perceived as relevant to the needs of workers, and working-class students demonstrated their capacity to study these topics in depth.

According to best estimates, workers made up approximately four out of five WEA students before the First World War and three out of every five students before the Second World War. The expansion of schooling resulted in a reduced need for the tutorial classes. From the 1930s, this onerous tradition began to be replaced by the classes of 12 or 24 weeks that are familiar today.

The number of courses in social sciences continued to grow, but there was expansion into areas such as philosophy, literature, science and the arts.

Courses in these new areas were less obviously focused on working-class needs and interests in personal and community development.

Possibly because of this, but more probably because of the greater opportunities for working-class students in school, by the 1960s workers amounted to approximately one in 10 students. Clearly, some of the social purpose was reduced but the WEA retained its relevance to such students while welcoming all members of society.

Part of the reason for the WEA's success was, and is, that it works from existing interests to a broader, more critical understanding.

The WEA has changed from its original focus on workers who would otherwise be excluded from education. The range of subjects has broadened, many courses are shorter, and the provision includes more basic education.

The core, though, remains critical thinking and personally and socially challenging adult education. Even if working-class students make up a smaller proportion than they did, they remain a vital part of the student body.

As we decide what courses will be available to students in FE, it is timely to recall the tradition of the WEA in developing lifelong learners. The association's principled position, despite changing circumstances, remains relevant and vital.

Graham Fowler is a further education researcher, writer and consultant.For further information see:

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