The Centenary of the WEA: Stephen K. Roberts Traces the Development and Examines the Legacy of a Unique Educational Institution. (Cross Current)

By Roberts, Stephen K. | History Today, February 2003 | Go to article overview

The Centenary of the WEA: Stephen K. Roberts Traces the Development and Examines the Legacy of a Unique Educational Institution. (Cross Current)


Roberts, Stephen K., History Today


ONLY TWO PEOPLE were present at the inaugural meeting of the Association to Promote the Higher Education of Working Men on May 16th, 1903: Albert Mansbridge, an upwardly mobile civil servant, and Frances his wife. In this symbolic meeting at their terraced house, Frances famously contributed 2s.6d. from her housekeeping money as a working fund and voted Albert `hon. sec. pro tem'. Two years later, during a Birmingham conference attended by 600 delegates and 400 visitors, the less sexist and more felicitous title of `Workers' Educational Association', or WEA, was adopted. The WEA celebrates its centenary this year.

The WEA's current mission statement defines its purpose as `to promote adult education based on democratic principles in its organisation and practice'. It provides in particular for the needs of `working class adults, and of those who are socially, economically or educationally disadvantaged'. With a current membership in England and Scotland reckoned at over 10,000, and with thousands more on its courses, the WEA meets the educational needs of people in informal community settings outside the constrictions and formalities of institutions of higher and further education. Its work is often unnoticed and largely unsung across the widest range imaginable of subject areas. Readers of History Today may well have attended WEA courses in the variety of history topics it advertises each year--notably in aspects of local and regional history--although the most actively recruiting subject area now is information technology. In 1952 Mansbridge wrote that the effects of the Association were `intangible'. It is certainly the case that its impact defies easy summary, but in tracing the evolution of the WEA we can attempt an assessment of its significance in the social history of twentieth-century Britain.

The full title of the WEA will suggest to many a Labour Party and nonconformist origin, somewhere in northern England. Yet in fact its roots lie in south London and in High Anglicanism. The Battersea in which Mansbridge, though Gloucester born, grew up was a rapidly expanding urban milieu in which was flung up a rich mix of voluntary and community activity: the Co-operative movement, the so-called `new' trade unionism among the less skilled, protestant nonconformity and radical politics in both the new London County Council and in Parliament. Mansbridge was an activist in the Battersea Co-operative Society, but abandoned his nonconformity for the local Anglican church, soon making contact with the clerical hierarchy at Westminster Abbey. After one or two false starts, he found a receptive audience among the Anglo-Catholic clerical proponents of the Christian Social Union, and through them a route to sympathetic dons at the universities, especially Oxford. Networking through intellectual dining clubs such as the Synthetic Society and a careful cultivation of serious newspapers were among the means by which Mansbridge ensured that the new WEA first sprang to the notice of the English university establishment and then, in 1907, secured grant aid--described at the time as a `golden stream'--from the Department of Education.

The consequences of government support were momentous. Grant aid provided a validation of the WEA's approach to adult education which for the first half-century of its life was marked by an emphasis on encouraging students to enrol on demanding courses in humanities and social science subjects. These were the `tutorial classes', based on Oxbridge models, in which students' progress was measured by their production of essays under the guidance of university-based tutors. The tutors included many distinguished names: R.H. Tawney and G.D.H. Cole were among the first of this breed, E.P. Thompson and Richard Hoggart among the last of the tutorial class generation of adult educators. The grant-bearing, university-validated tutorial classes were seen as the `gold standard' of the movement, and Tawney in particular invested much energy in his later years as WEA president in urging adherence to this model, which had been so spectacularly successful in the early days. …

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