EDUCATION FOR ALL
Michelle Higgs celebrates the role of the Workers’ Educational Association in broadening horizons and improving the prospects of the working classes
Michelle Higgs celebrates the role of the Workers’ Educational Association
Most working-class children had no option but to enter employment
At the beginning of the 20th century, the school leaving age was just 12 years old; it was raised to 14 in 1921. Most working-class children, even if they were bright, had no option but to enter the world of employment, because secondary education was not yet free and they were expected to contribute to their household incomes.
Teenagers and young adults who still had a thirst for knowledge and education after leaving school could attend evening classes or take correspondence courses that were offered by the Co-operative Society, the Women’s Co-operative Guild, trade unions or the University Extension Movement.
University Extension courses, first begun in 1873, were originally established by the University of Cambridge, partly at the initiative of the North of England Council for Promoting the Higher Education of Women. They were designed to extend the knowledge and culture found in universities to everyone, regardless of gender or social class. However, by the turn of the century there was increasing concern that these courses were not reaching the working classes because of the cost, together with the fact that the students had no say in their education.
In 1903 Albert Mansbridge, an activist in the Co-operative Movement, wrote a series of articles for the University Extension Journal proposing that an association be formed to create a new partnership between universities and working-class organisations that provided education; these included trade unions, cooperatives and working men’s clubs.
The articles garnered support for Mansbridge’s idea, and he was able to found the Association to Promote the Higher Education of Working Men in May that year. In 1905 the organisation changed its name to the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) to reflect the educational needs of women.
As established in its constitution, the main objective of the WEA was to “promote the higher education of working men and women” by “arousing the interest of workers in higher education and by directing their attention to the facilities already existing; by inquiring into the needs and feelings of the workers in regard to education, and by representing them to the Board of Education, universities, local education authorities, and educational institutions; by providing, either in
conjunction with the aforementioned bodies or otherwise, facilities for studies of interest to the workers which may hitherto have been overlooked; and by publishing… reports, pamphlets, books and magazines”.
The idea of a partnership between universities and working-class organisations was not new, but the WEA’s underlying philosophy was very different. From the very beginning, it was democratic in its approach to its students and what they learned. The mantra of the WEA district secretaries speaking up and down the country was: “Discover your own needs, organise in your own way, study as you wish to study. There are no two towns or villages alike.”
The WEA is organised into local branches and districts; the first branch was formed at Reading in October 1904. This was followed in January 1905 by Derby, and two months later by Rochdale and Ilford. In Scotland, branches were formed in Edinburgh (1912), Aberdeen (1913), Glasgow (1916), and Dundee and Kilmarnock (1917). An earlier Glasgow branch had begun in 1905, but folded after four years. The first Welsh branch began in Barry, Glamorgan, in 1907, while in Northern Ireland there was a branch in Belfast from 1910.
Annual membership cost 1s, which entitled each member to free or discounted lectures. By 1907 there were 13 branches, 283 affiliated bodies and 2,612 individual members. The affiliated organisations included trade unions, so if your ancestor belonged to a union, they may well have attended a WEA lecture or course. Seven years later the number of branches had increased to 179, with 2,555 affiliated societies and 11,430 individual members. Membership continued to grow, helped by the establishment of the WEA in Australia (1913), New Zealand (1915) and Canada (1917). In 1919 there were more than 17,000 individual members across the globe.
At first, the WEA concentrated on providing lecture courses given by university lecturers, local speakers, WEA district secretaries or former students. It was originally envisaged that the subjects would include geography, history, economics, literature, science and art, but with no set syllabus – the students would decide what they wanted to learn. For example, in Rochdale members of the Carters’ and Lorrymen’s Trade Union requested classes on ‘ The Care of the Horse’. Some 120 carters attended a class for two successive winters, gaining a greater understanding of how to look after their horses, while casual labourers from a Temperance Society in Canning
Town, East London, asked for a class in ‘Industrial History’, and their wives wanted one on ‘How to Read Books’.
In London, the Westminster lectures held on Saturday afternoons in June between 1906 and 1909 attracted 1,000 working men and women each session; there were three times as many applications for tickets as were available. The topics included ‘The Story of Westminster Abbey in Relationship to the History of the English People’, ‘Parliament and the People’ and ‘The House of Commons’.
Outside the classroom
The activities provided by the WEA were not just confined to lectures. There were naturestudy rambles, excursions to art galleries and other places of interest, reading and study circles, and courses or lectures for affiliated organisations. There were also the highly popular One-Year Classes, during which the students chose the subject of study and drew up plans for the course with their tutor. By 1923 there were 624 such classes being run across the country, with 15,314 students.
A report from 1924 for the Eastern District recorded that its One-Year Classes included economics, history, literature, psychology, local government, Esperanto and public speaking. The report noted: “When it is realised that the study is taken up after a heavy day in the factory, the results are a tribute to the determination of the students and the unsparing help of the tutors.”
However, it soon became apparent that short courses of lectures did not work for promising working-class students who were capable of working at university level. There was little opportunity for discussion, because there could be hundreds of people at a single lecture. In addition, the subjects could be quite random, and students were not expected to complete written work.
The answer was a new system of tutorial classes introduced in 1908 with grant aid from the Board of Education. Each class had a maximum of 24 students and was taught by a prominent university lecturer, such as the historian RH Tawney. Tutorials were a significant commitment for students, with weekly classes and regular essay-writing over a three-year period. For the tutors, there were many benefits. Tawney recalled: “The friendly smitings of weavers, potters, miners and engineers have taught me much about the problem of political and economic sciences which cannot easily be learned from books.”
The first tutorial classes established by the University of Oxford were held in Rochdale and Longton, Staffordshire, in 1907–1908. One of the Rochdale students, TW Price, who was employed in a bleach works, noted the occupations of his classmates: “There are in the class 12 iron workers, eight skilled and four unskilled, and three joiners. All the chief branches of the cotton industry are represented: spinning, weaving, bleaching and finishing. There are also two carpet weavers, a wool-sorter, a spindlemaker, a shuttlemaker, a printer, a housepainter, a picture-framer, an accountant’s clerk, a cashier, a teacher, two journalists and an insurance agent. Of the lady students one is a clerk, one a dress-maker, one a schoolmistress and the fourth is a working man’s wife.”
A year later, there were eight tutorial classes in Longton, Rochdale, Swindon, Wrexham, Chesterfield, Glossop, Littleborough and Oldham. A WEA report found that the tutorial students were “mainly manual workers, with an intermixture of school teachers and clerks, together with secretaries of working-class organisations”.
Although women did attend courses and lectures in the early years, most WEA students were male. Married working women with children faced numerous barriers to education. To help matters, the WEA Women’s Advisory Committee was established in 1909 to examine the provision of education for working women, and a series of womenonly classes were introduced. Few statistics exist for these classes, but they included such topics as ‘Pioneer Women of the Nineteenth Century’ in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and ‘The
The lectures attracted 1,000 working men and women each session
Psychology of the Child Mind’ in Chorley. Two years later the WEA began offering afternoon classes for women not in paid work. There was a steady increase of female students for the flagship tutorial classes, rising from 9 per cent in 1910–1911 to 32 per cent in 1919–1920 before plateauing.
The WEA courses changed lives, as shown in Edith Hall’s memoir Canary Girls and
Stockpots (1977). Born in 1908, Edith left school in 1922, alternating between factory jobs and domestic service. She recalled: “Trying to catch up on one’s education after a long day at work was very difficult and I well understood my father’s problems as he had left school at the age of 12 to start work. Every evening, he would pore over Harmsworth’s
Encyclopaedia and a self-educator, and together we went to a class organised by the Workers’ Educational Association… But now, with what joy, tired out physically but mentally alert did my dear dad and I discuss our class together over supper.” When she was 19, Edith considered herself “educationally fit enough” to apply to train as a nurse.
The WEA was a small but essential part of the wider adult education movement. By 1934 more than 60,000 students attended adult classes organised by the WEA and the universities. At the same time, more than two million students were taking part-time classes in England and Wales in technical colleges or evening institutes controlled by local education authorities.
Not just a provider of education, the WEA campaigned for reform – particularly for raising the school leaving age and free secondary education for all. This right was finally granted after the 1944 Education Act. By 1946 new regulations meant that universities could offer all kinds of classes themselves, so the link with the WEA weakened. From the 1950s learners were increasingly middle class, rather than manual workers. The WEA still provides professional education across Britain today.
Who Do You Think You Are?
Who Do You Think You Are? A WEA Summer School in 1912 – students from all walks of life were in attendance A Bristol class in 1978. Flexible learning has allowed WEA students to combine study and childcare
The origins of the WEA’s branch in Bexley, South- East London, date from the 1930s – this photograph of amateur dramatics there was taken in the 1970s Members of the Transport and General Workers’ Union practise public speaking in Cirencester in 1959