WHAT IS THE WEA?
There are many providers of adult education in Northern Ireland: The Open University, the University of Ulster, Queen’s University, the Further Education Colleges and then, in addition to these formal providers, there is a network of informal community education bodies.
So what is special about the WEA?
Six things distinguish the WEA:
It is an independent organisation
Most education providers have no choice but to follow government policy. If that policy is heavily influenced by the political bent of the government of the day then the providers will find their own practice shaped accordingly. While the WEA has a funding relationship with the Government through a ‘compact’, it remains free to set it own directions and priorities. The Compact is a formal agreement that sets targets for the WEA that are linked to the key objectives of the Department for Employment and Learning.
It is a democratic organisation
This democracy operates at all levels. Students are encouraged to plan the syllabus of their course; they can form WEA branches and organise programmes of classes; and branches can elect representatives onto the Management Committee of the organisation. Organisations that we work with can become affiliate members. Special ‘advisory committees’ have also been created to help shape the WEA’s project work.
It is a voluntary organisation
Although full-time staff are employed, and the part-time tutors are also paid for their services, the WEA relies upon the voluntary commitment of people who are prepared to manage its affairs at grass roots level and at the level of central planning and administration.
It has a sense of social purpose
The WEA has a declared commitment to making education accessible to those who suffer social or educational disadvantage. This means that it often begins by identifying a social or political problem, such as the neglect of the elderly or the effects of sectarianism in Northern Ireland, and then working back to find educational responses to those problems. Our Learning for Older People project was set up to address the needs of the elderly, and the Men in From the Margins project is our attempt to use education to help combat the under representation of men in adult education.
It has a unique history
The WEA draws on a rich tradition. First established in England in 1903, the WEA ran its first courses in Belfast in 1910. It has since woven itself into the fabric of our society and there is scarcely a city, town or townland which has not had its own WEA branch at one time or another. Many distinguished citizens have taught for the WEA or helped to organize its classes.
It is part of a larger network
The WEA is an outward-looking body, and is constantly enriched by its contact with other adult education bodies in other societies. We are networked with the WEAs in England, Scotland and Wales and also with the International Federation of WEAs.