Michelle Higgs cel­e­brates the role of the Work­ers’ Ed­u­ca­tional As­so­ci­a­tion in broad­en­ing hori­zons and im­prov­ing the prospects of the work­ing classes

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS - Michelle Higgs is a so­cial his­to­rian and author. Learn more at michelle­higgs.co.uk

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.”

Small be­gin­nings

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”.

Wel­com­ing women

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.

Trail­blaz­ing role

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

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