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Primary Education News
News A broad, cultural education is vital to the health of a democratic society | Richard Taylor
The Workers' Educational Association was set up to bring the joy of learning to the masses. Never has it been more relevant
The Workers' Educational Association (WEA) formally came into existence in 1903 and soon became a strong national presence. To understand whether it is still relevant in the 21st century, it is, as always, important to look at some aspects of the WEA's early history and some of the contrasting strands of thinking which characterise it still.
There was a strong, altruistic and primarily Christian-inspired belief that it was the duty of established society (including the universities, the church and individual members of the upper and upper-middle class) to bring "high culture" and the "joy of learning" to the great mass of the uneducated general adult public. Ancillary to this, and following on from the extension movement, there was a commitment to enfranchising, educationally, largely middle-class women.
All this took place, of course, in a society where most people left school, with rudimentary education, at 13 or 14 or even earlier; and where manual work was the destiny for the large majority. Only a tiny percentage of the relevant age group attended university (indeed, even when I went to university in 1964 the annual rate was under 8%; it's almost 50% today).
The establishment believed too that with the increasing power of the organised working class, and with universal suffrage on the horizon, it was imperative to engage the working class with the rich culture and parliamentary democratic traditions of the established order in Britain (which can be seen as either evidence of commitment to the educational enfranchisement of the working class, or its incorporation into the ruling order and its ideology – a matter of some dispute among historians).
The key task of the WEA, from this perspective, was to ensure that the working class was educationally equipped (especially in economics, politics and the social sciences) to take power in a modern democracy and usher in, through the parliamentary system, a more egalitarian, social democratic order.
Further to the left there were those – a small but vociferous group – who saw "bourgeois education", as they termed it, as a cul de sac; and wanted the WEA to teach explicitly Marxist approaches to the working class in order to equip the embryonic revolutionary movement with the means to overthrow capitalism.
The WEA was thus, from the outset, an organisation and movement with very disparate strands of belief about its core purposes. Overarching all these ideological strands was the unique voluntarism of the WEA. It was, and remains, a democratic body controlled in the end by its voluntary adult members. While this has resulted on occasion in tensions, it has made the WEA from the outset a prominent example of democracy in action.
The educational world has changed dramatically since the WEA was founded, and indeed since the time when I first became involved in it in the 1960s. In addition to the obvious changes – among them, the massive increase in education and training opportunities for all sections of the population; the increasing sophistication of learning technology, the feminisation of the workforce and trade unions – there are other, perhaps less obvious, changes.
While there is persisting inequality in our society, the old class structures have been largely dissolved. Inequalities are now more complex, diffused and malleable (though social mobility has improved very little). In place of clearly defined, and self-aware classes, we now have an elusive mosaic of inequality. And this makes the task of educational providers much more difficult.
Education and training are now perceived to be central to the economic wellbeing of society. The increasing sophistication of modern economies and their technologies and the rapid pace of change necessitate a high level of education for an increasingly large proportion of the population.
We also live in a scientific and technological age and this dominates our culture – Stem subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and vocational training are given unquestioned priority – while the bureaucratic processes of audit and inspection pervade all public-sector structures.
And whereas in the 20th century the public sector was seen generally as legitimate and as providing a valuable social good, privatisation and the market culture are now seen as superior and the public sector is denigrated – at least implicitly. This is an insidious process, seen in consistent changes in language. For example, on the privatised railway system, we no longer have "passengers", we have "customers"; in universities, "vice-chancellors" are increasingly referred to and see themselves as, "chief executives".
We therefore have an educational context in which the culture, funding and perceived priorities are dominated by science/technology and by a series of neoliberal business assumptions. In this world, maybe the old WEA is hopelessly out of date. Maybe we should jettison the cultural studies programmes of mainly arts and social studies subjects (or at the very least provide fewer of them and only at near full cost). Maybe we need to give priority to vocational training and job-related programmes. Surely, it is argued, if adult education is to play its part in making Britain – or UK plc – a modern, competitive and efficient society, organisations like the WEA should radically reorientate itself and its provision?
This is a seductive picture for some; it sounds purposeful, trendy, modern, relevant. It is though, in my view, dangerously mistaken. At the level of principle, it needs to be argued forcefully that a democratic society requires an educated and involved citizenry. This is not an add-on; a luxury which those who wish to indulge should pay for at full cost. It is a fundamental of a democratic, civilised society. The levels of alienation, of trivialisation, of crass cultural products (not least the tabloid press), and political ignorance and cynicism – all of these speak to the depths of the problems we face.
The steady diminution of public funding for educational provision in arts and social studies has now culminated in higher education, and largely in further education, being at more or less full cost. It is not too fanciful to suggest that in the foreseeable future, only a handful of elite universities, notably Oxford and Cambridge, will be high-quality providers of arts and (non-applied) social studies degree programmes. This is a catastrophic prospect.
Secondly, we should remember that Raymond Williams, a great adult educator among many other attributes, argued that the primary purpose of the adult educator is "to critique the prevailing common sense". And never was there a "prevailing common sense" that was more in need of critique.
At its best, the WEA is a counter-cultural force; in an increasingly homogeneous culture, we should be always asking the awkward questions; confronting established, assumed ideological truths with other views, other explanatory frameworks; and enabling adult learners to find their own way to their own conclusions, by ensuring that they have full exposure to and understanding of competing frameworks of analysis. The WEA must play its part in ensuring that education is seen as a good in itself, that it widens and deepens our understanding and appreciation of the world.
As our society becomes more unequal so it is also apparent that the WEA's social purpose ethos is more relevant and important than ever. There are now increasing numbers of people trapped in cycles of deprivation. Government cuts to local authorities, the voluntary sector and social services are severely exacerbating these problems. The WEA provides a valuable and very varied programme of targeted work with some of these communities.
Lastly, it is increasingly important for the WEA to preserve and advocate the voluntarist ethic. Education is being increasingly bureaucratised and structured (and in recent years imbued with neoliberal ideology and practice). The WEA's voluntarism bucks the trend and sets an example for others to follow.
As much as at any time in its history, the WEA has a central, vital role to play. Its educational provision and ethos are unique; and it has potentially an important role to play in buttressing and developing a truly democratic society.
• This is an edited extract of the Eastern Region WEA centenary lecture. The full text is available here