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Adventures in Learning

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On October 5th 1910 an audience of almost one hundred people attended a public meeting in the Central Hall, Rosemary Street, Belfast which had been convened to consider the possibility of setting up a branch of the Workers' Educational Association. The meeting was addressed by Mr. L.V. Gill from Rochdale, an employee of the English WEA, who outlined the activities of the Association since its formation in 1903. The English movement had developed as an alliance between progressive forces inside the English universities and representatives of workers' organisations and the same coming together was evident in the coalition of interests which had organised the Belfast meeting. In the chair was Mr. Knox from the Belfast Co-Operative Society and sharing the platform were Tommy Henderson (Independent Labour Party), D.R. Campbell (Belfast Trades Council), Thomas Jones (Professor of Economics, Queen's University) and Joseph Malcolmson (Ulster Union of Adult Schools).

They had good reason to feel confident that their proposal to launch a Belfast WEA would meet with support. It was an idea whose time had come, albeit somewhat later than it had come elsewhere. The labour movement in the North of Ireland had been slow to develop, but in the early years of the century it had begun to assert itself as a force in the land. This was the period which marked the peak of Belfast's predominance as an industrial city. As Jonathan Bardon describes it in his book on Belfast: "In the years leading up to the Great War citizens could boast that their city had the greatest shipyard, ropeworks, tobacco factory, linen spinning mill, dry dock and tea machinery works in the world ..." Indeed, those making their way to the meeting in Rosemary Street would have been aware that the huge construction dominating the skyline was that of the Olympia, due to be launched that same month and the biggest ship the world had ever seen. They would also have been conscious of the ferment of radical ideas that this industrialisation was bringing in its wake, and would have felt the excitement which was running high about another public meeting to be held the following evening in the Ulster Hall which would be addressed by Mrs. Pankhurst on the subject of Women's Franchise in Ireland. It was in such a climate that the meeting decided to formerly constitute a branch of the WEA in Belfast.

Adult education did of course have its precedents in the North of Ireland. At the close of the 19th century different strands were apparent: the Quakers were running an Adult School in Frederick Street in Belfast to give instruction in basic literacy, the Linenhall Library was running public lecture series, and the Municipal Technical College in Belfast had just been given public funds to extend its provision for young apprentices. The triumph of the WEA was to yoke the various interests in education together and to ensure that the teaching resources of the University could be placed at the disposal of the working class. It had a high moral purpose behind this achievement and the founding father of the WEA, Albert Mansbridge most commonly used the metaphor of the religious mission to describe the work of the adult educationalists. To the Victorian mind the spread of knowledge was linked to the spread of virtue and the course titles of the early WEA classes in Belfast reflected this high seriousness, "The Social and Industrial History of Ireland", "History of Western Civilisation" and "Philosophy". The public response was an eager one. The first course organised by the WEA in Northern Ireland was taught by a Mr. Russell Jones from Queen's University and his chosen subject, "Economic History", enrolled over seventy students. If the WEA learned from this success the appeal of academic knowledge to the Belfast labouring class the organisers also discovered some of the perils of organising adult education, as halfway during the course Mr. Jones "left Belfast unexpectedly", as the minute records it, leaving the fledgeling WEA to cope with a large body of discontented students.

Despite organisational wrinkles of this kind the movement continued to grow and the momentum soon carried it outside Belfast. By 1925 it had consolidated itself in Bangor and Lisburn, and in 1928 its activities received a boost when Queen's University created a Department of Extra-Mural Studies with a Director, H. J. Eason who had previously been a WEA activist. The Extra-Mural Department was to function in close co-operation with the WEA, with the WEA taking the role of organising the class groups and leaving it to the University to supply the tutors. In 1930 relations were formalised when eight class groups came together to form the Workers' Educational Association of Northern Ireland. With seven nominees from this body and seven from the University, a Joint Committee was set up, with funding from the Ministry of Education. This organisational arrangement allowed the WEA the security to proceed with its aim of extending adult education provision in Northern Ireland and in the period before the war the Joint Committee was running twenty courses per year.


The WEA was not so secure however in its identity as a working class organisation. As early as the first Annual Meeting in 1911 the organisation was warned by one of its speakers not to become dependent upon the university side of the movement. Early efforts to involve trade unions met with some success but not quite the degree of support the most optimistic members had hoped. The WEA's identification with movements of social reform was also problematic when it had to move from theory to practice. It had early on given support to organisations such as the Children’s Aid Society which campaigned for medical inspection of school children, though by 1917 decided that to campaign for nursery schools would be "too advanced and idealistic" and in 1918 expressed sympathy with the National Council for Combating Venereal Disease but judiciously decided its activities lay outside the scope of the WEA.

The problem of identity was not a problem for the Northern Ireland District alone. The momentum created by the early missionary impulse had steadily weakened and Professor Bernard Jennings, in a history of the WEA, characterises the situation in the period after 1945 as follows: "The ideal of the WEA was a working class student following a rigorous course for a social purpose. The reality was increasingly a middle class student attending a less demanding course in search of personal satisfaction". Albert Mansbridge the founding father of the WEA had said that unless seventy-five per cent of its students were "labouring men and women" it could be considered an unnecessary body. By 1950 only 19% of all WEA students (although 45% of male students) were manual workers and the percentage of students attending classes of at least one year's duration had fallen to 39% compared with 50% in 1939. The sense of drift was noted by a government report in 1954 which, while praising the academic standards of the WEA and recommending improved grant arrangements, warned that the WEA could not flourish unless it regained its sense of social purpose. A protracted period of soul searching followed for the English WEA, resulting in the Russell Report of 1973 which recommended the WEA should concern itself with four main areas: 1) education for the socially and culturally deprived living in urban areas; 2) educational work in an industrial context; 3) political and social education; 4) courses of liberal and academic study below the level of university work. This was just the charter the WEA in England needed to allow it to return to its roots and regain its sense of political identity.

In Northern Ireland, needless to say, there were important differences. If the WEA had lost some of its high moral seriousness it did not mean it had no sense of social purpose. In the various localities in which it operated the WEA acted as a social catalyst and, had the term been current in those days could well have described itself as a community development agency. Hamish Henderson, the Scottish poet and songwriter was District Secretary from 1948 to 1949, and remembers the conviviality of the WEA class in the period: "Working for the WEA in those days was the perfect job for a folklorist like myself. I used to tour around the country branches and after classes there would always be a session going on somewhere, with an abundance of fiddles and singers".

In a society with Northern Ireland's sectarian division an organisation capable of playing this role had an important contribution to make. Another District Secretary, Bill Hurst, writing in 1954 said that one of his deepest satisfactions as an adult education organiser was in "the setting up of a large WEA class in music appreciation in an Ulster town, notorious for its religious divisions and segregations, the membership of which was both Roman Catholic and Protestant".


The years after the war saw the greatest expansion of the WEA in Northern Ireland. In 1937-38 the WEA had 10 branches and a total student enrolment of 377, by 1952-53 the branches had increased to 31 and the student enrolment figure had rocketed to 3147. The expansion brought organisational difficulties in its train. In 1946 the WEA had formally constituted itself as a WEA District, with constitutional links to the WEA Districts in England, Scotland, and Wales. It was unlike the other Districts however in that it was not given government recognition as a Responsible Body and did not receive direct grant-aid. In Northern Ireland the WEA was dependent upon its relationship with the Extra-Mural Department for teaching staff and funds from the Ministry of Education went to the Joint Committee and to the Extra-Mural Department, not to the WEA. What had begun as a happy marriage between the University and the WEA was becoming increasingly fraught, with each partner coming to feel badly served by the other. In 1958 the WEA set up a Working Party to look at relations with the University and its recommendations included a long-term perspective which looked to the WEA receiving funding directly from the Ministry of Education to allow it to organise independently. Queen's University for its part, had moved towards a similar conclusion and in its correspondence to the WEA in this period stated that in "The slender connection between the University and the WEA...there is an absence of direct benefit to the University". The deteriorating relations and the perceived threat to the WEA led the District Chairman, Joe Cooper, to open his address to the 1962 AGM by stating "This Annual General Meeting is being held at a time when the very existence of our movement in Northern Ireland is in jeopardy". The marriage was effectively over, though it required a government report to effect the legal separation. In 1964 a committee under Sir Charles Morris produced a report on Adult Education in Northern Ireland which dissolved the Joint Committee and recognised distinct roles for the University and the WEA. Henceforth the Extra-Mural Department was to be responsible for "classes of university standard" and the WEA was to be given direct grant from the Ministry of Education to employ staff and awarded the status of Responsible Body which would allow it to become like the other WEA districts, a direct provider of adult education. A standing joint Consultative Committee was created to assist liaison between the two bodies but relations remained so soured that by 1968 there come a final break with the Extra-Mural Department.

The Morris Report was a watershed for the Northern Ireland District, as fundamental to its development as the Russell Report was to the English Districts. Its recommendations did not please everyone, with the Belfast Branch in particular feeling apprehensive about the future. Belfast had always enjoyed a close working relationship with the Extra-Mural Department and its Secretary, Mr. W.H. Fenning, had on more than one occasion to write to the District to say that the classes provided for the Branch by University lecturers were proving so successful that the branch could not accommodate the numbers who wanted to enrol. The die had been cast however that the WEA, having lived so long in the shadow of the University was now to make its own way in the world. It could not help having its sense of liberation tinged with apprehension.


The outbreak of the Troubles at the end of the sixties proved to be the next shaping force in the redevelopment of the District. The breakdown of many of the normal services left many areas without an adult education provision and in 1971 Joe Cooper, along with the District Secretary Sam Armstrong, set up courses in the Andersonstown and Turf Lodge areas of west Belfast. There was an overwhelming response from the people in the areas and the District made application to the Ministry for Community Relations for funds to launch a community development project for the educationally and socially underprivileged in urban areas. Nothing came of this approach but in 1978 the Minister with responsibility for education in the Northern Ireland Office, Lord Melchett, responded to an overture from the District and agreed to a development plan whereby the District would be funded for the first time in its history to employ tutor organiser staff, something which the English Districts had been funded to do since 1956. In 1979, as a first stage of this plan, three tutor organisers were appointed: Sam Burnside was given responsibility for the area West of the Bann, Ann Hope was appointed to teach Trade Union Studies and Paul Nolan had the brief of developing Community Education in the areas designated as Belfast Areas of need. A new District Secretary, Derek Ray, had been appointed in 1978 and he had helped to oversee this development.

The new appointments made for a major shift in emphasis in the work of the WEA in Northern Ireland. There was now a full commitment to trade union education and to work with disadvantaged groups such as the unemployed, the elderly, working class women and dispersed rural communities. A Women's Studies Branch was set up, projects such as Belfast Unemployment Action and the Derry Unemployed Workers' Centre were launched under the inspiration of the WEA, and the enrolment figures mounted to an all time peak of 7,000 students in the year 1982-83. Again however the expansion brought organisational difficulties in its wake and in 1983, the year of its greatest success in terms of student enrolments, the District spiralled into debt. In August of that year it plunged into financial crisis and with the organisation on the verge of bankruptcy, the District Secretary and the District Treasurer resigned. A period of crisis management followed with voluntary members and staff working together to rescue the organisation from its calamitous state. Their efforts proved successful and by the end of the financial year 1984-85 the District had recovered to the extent of being able to display a small surplus in its accounts.

In 1984 a new District Secretary, Paul Nolan, was appointed and in 1985 two new projects were launched: one for the unemployed and one for the elderly. Through these and other innovative programmes of work the WEA quickly re-established its reputation as a leading provider of adult education, as well as an organisation with proper management structures. A major vote of confidence came from the Department of Education when it agreed to finance a new regional structure for the WEA in 1991. Offices were opened in Newry, Ballymena and Enniskillen and the permanent core staffing was increased so that the WEA would have one Tutor Organiser in each of the five Education and Library Board Areas. In addition to these appointments three new projects were begun: the People's History Project, the anti-sectarian project, Interface, and then, in 1993, the Sixty Plus Project was given a new lease of life by a grant from the DHSS.

While this expansion was taking place the WEA elsewhere was experiencing difficulties. In 1991 a combination of internal and external circumstances persuaded the WEA Districts in England and Scotland to dissolve themselves as independent organisations in order to create one new, integrated body. Such major constitutional change did not proceed without lengthy debate and there were many who resisted the unitary model. Resistance was strongest amongst the non-English Districts, as the logic for the new arrangements was predicated, in part, on government funding for the English Districts being channelled through the WEA National Office and not going, as it had previously, directly to the Districts. The change in the financial and administrative arrangements necessitated organisational changes for the WEA in England and Scotland but, in the end, the WEA in Wales and the WEA in Northern Ireland decided to stay outside the new constitutional structure. At its AGM in June 1993 the WEA in Northern Ireland voted to become a limited company, responsible for its own destiny.

From that point on the WEA has functioned as a wholly autonomous legal entity. Perhaps ironically, this separation has helped rather than hindered the WEA in building useful partnerships with WEAs in other parts of the world. In 1994 a partnership was formed with the AOF, the equivalent body in Denmark, and an initiative was begun to provide training for the new and emerging voluntary organisations in Lithuania. Working with the AOF and the South Wales WEA the Northern Ireland WEA took the expertise it had developed in capacity-building and applied it to the Lithuanian social sector. The links made through that first programme helped launch the Association as an organisation capable of performing on the international stage, and in 1996 the Northern Ireland WEA undertook the organisation of its biggest ever event, the hosting of the conference of the International Federation of Workers’ Education Associations.

This event takes place every four years and it had previously been held in Canada, Israel and Jamaica. Holding it in Belfast was a huge undertaking, but the optimism that resulted from the 1994 cease-fires and the tide of international goodwill made it seem the right choice. A total of 200 delegates, representing 33 different countries attended a week of discussions at Stranmillis College which included the formal business of the 17th IFWEA conference as well as a series of linked seminars which allowed Irish participants, from North and South, to share perspectives with delegates involved in similar work but in very different settings.


Throughout the 1990s the Association continued a steady expansion, increasing its student enrolments to 11,000 in 1999 and employing a staff team of over thirty. This expansion was due in no small measure to the availability of European funding, and the neat fit between the priorities of the European Union and those of the WEA. Social exclusion, community relations, women’s training and capacity-building for voluntary organisations: these were all high on the agenda of the EU Structural Funds and its Peace and Reconciliation programme; they were also, as it happened, part of the development plan which the Association had written for itself.

The new funding, while welcome, brought its own difficulties. As was noted in the Annual Report of 1997, an organisation cannot grow without changing. For the WEA there were two main changes necessary to meet the new agenda. One was the internal staff restructuring which created new teams working under a Project Manager and dedicated to a particular area of work. These teams included Group Organisation and Leadership (GOAL) which had community development as its focus, the Interface Project which addressed sectarian division and the Opportunities For Women Learning, our OWL Project. Two new Assistant Director posts were also created, and the organisation then had a staffing structure with the right degree of elasticity to allow it to meet the new funding opportunities.

Successes in these specialist areas of work had the knock-on effect of creating the other problem, which was the displacement of the traditional branch programme. For most of the 1980s and 1990s the organisation had described the liberal adult education programme of the branches as its ‘mainstream’ work, and its targeted provision in areas of social disadvantage as ‘project’ work - the clear implication being that one was to be thought of the core work of the Association, and the other as peripheral or, at least, temporary in nature. The growing interest in the WEA shown by funders, however, was to reverse that: the new money coming into the Association was for its special projects which were coming to be seen to define the WEA in its new dynamic period. By way of contrast there was little interest from funders in the traditional programme, and its voluntary enthusiasts were left feeling they had to defend a form of provision that had suddenly become unfashionable.

The election of New Labour in 1997 propelled this changed dynamic even further. The new lifelong learning agenda unfolded by government in The Learning Age (1998) was one which put heavy emphasis on vocationalism and on social inclusion; by the same token, recreational or leisure education was deemed not deserving of government funding. In May 1998 the Management Committee of the Association went on a planning residential and considered the various hopes and fears that attached to the creation of the next three year development plan. The document which resulted from this process, ‘Learning Together’, balanced the different parts of its curriculum, giving parity of esteem to three areas of work:

  • Access and Opportunity which creates opportunities for individual learners
  • Building Communities which works with collective groups in the community
  • Local Learning which encourages and supports voluntary participation in the provision of education

On the basis of this document a successful negotiation was conducted with the Department of Education and signed up to by both sides in 1999 as a ‘new compact’. The ambition of the WEA’s plan was recognised by the Department in the new funding arrangement, the most generous in the organisation’s history.

In 2001 the organisation changed Director with Stevie Johnston coming into post. The WEA’s compact with the Department has proven successful yet the changing educational and political landscape meant that there needed to be a change in emphasis in the work of the Association. With the growing demand for information technology and the need to address the issue of Essential Skills the WEA embarked on its new development strategy entitled Learning for Change. And so, at the beginning of a new century the WEA looked outwards once more to face the ‘bright future’ promised it by L.V. Gill at the meeting in Central Hall, Belfast almost one hundred years before.

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