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What about the workers?

After a wobbly moment, the WEA has regrouped and is ready to carry on its historic mission. Martin Whittaker reports

Peter Templeton recalls his first involvement with the Workers' Educational Association 25 years ago. He was a union rep attending a class entitled "Will the microchip change our lives?". Today, he says: "I'd already been to adult education classes before that, but the thing about the WEA that struck me was how different it was.

"Not only were the teaching methods and the subject different and interesting, but also, at the end, they said, 'would you like to come along to a branch meeting and help us plan other courses?'. No other education provider had ever asked me to do that, or ever has since."

While the microchip has indeed changed our lives, the venerable WEA is now undergoing its own revolution after a period of crisis dragged it kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Three years ago, poor financial management had landed the association pound;3 million in the red. In March 2004, an Adult Learning Inspectorate report graded its provision inadequate and criticised its leadership and management.

Mr Templeton, the organisation's director of education, quality and strategy, says it was a wake-up call for an organisation which had grown too insular: "The WEA did need an external kick up the backside to start addressing issues that many people within it knew needed to be addressed," he said. "While I believe in the democracy and value of the organisation, it had got itself into a position where it was much too introverted."

The WEA was founded in 1903 to support working people. It has a long tradition of democracy, involving its members in planning and providing courses as well as running the association.

Its aims include providing liberal education for adults, many of whom would not usually consider such an option. Today, it is the UK's biggest adult learning provider and runs more than 10,000 courses a year across the country. Half of its provision is in partnership with community and voluntary groups, and much of it has been at the cutting edge in tackling social exclusion.

So what went wrong? In November 2002, the Learning and Skills Council London East, which provides most of its money, raised serious concerns over the organisation's leadership and management. In 2003 - its centenary year - it recorded a pound;3 million deficit and had to be bailed out by the LSC. Its troubles were compounded when its senior accountant, Andrew Malaolu, was convicted for stealing hundreds of thousands of pounds from its coffers.

The crisis brought a complete change in senior management. The WEA recruited a new general secretary, Richard Bolsin, who had been director of education at Agilisys, a technology and business process services company.

Mr Templeton also joined the leadership team, the only member to have come up through the WEA ranks. Since 2003, the organisation has undergone a major reorganisation. Mr Templeton says: "The financial situation was symptomatic of broader problems in leadership and management in the organisation that I now feel we have very strongly addressed. I don't think we'd say we have completely solved everything, but we have turned things around."

Financially, the WEA is back on an even keel, showing surpluses this year and last. But this is a crucial time for the association as it undergoes a re-inspection due to finish in early December. "We haven't got through reinspection yet, so I don't know the outcome," Mr Templeton said. "But we've done a lot of work on the overall quality improvement and curriculum management side of things."

Over the past year, the organisation has also restructured from 13 districts in England to nine. It also has more than 650 local branches and a Scottish association. Wales and Northern Ireland have their own WEAs.

Another issue it faces, in common with all adult education providers, is funding cuts and fee increases. The association has avoided making cuts this year, but its summer newsletter warned members of hard times ahead as it faces a 10 per cent increase in fees. Nearly 30 per cent of its students come from disadvantaged areas.

"We don't know how much elasticity there is in demand, so if you push up fees, what impact does that have on take-up? And we can't predict that," said Mr Templeton.

But, he says, the WEA aims to maintain its distinctive service.

Annie Merton, senior development officer for community learning at the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education said: "Let's hope that, as the WEA builds for the future, it is also allowed to keep faith with its history as a place where adults can come together to learn whatever it is they want to learn - be that basic skills, family learning, trade union studies, current affairs or the history of British canals."

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