Medway-based writer Sam Fentiman-Hall, who teaches creative writing for the WEA, and whose play about human trafficking MY MIND IS FREE was performed at the Edinburgh Festival last month, introduces this organisation, set up with just two shillings and sixpence
“I enjoy working for the WEA because I feel their ethos is very important but also because the work offers the opportunity to engage with a wide range of different people and communities.” WEA tutor and artist Deborah Crofts
The Workers Educational Assocation, or WEA, is the UK’s largest voluntary sector provider of adult education in England and Scotland, but you might never have heard of it!
Its roots were planted in 1903 by a 27-year old man called Albert Mansbridge, who believed that working class people could transform themselves through self-help and collective endeavour. Mansbridge likened education to an adventure; in his book, An Adventure in Working Class Education, he wrote ‘… everyone has the capacity for wonder and pure enjoyment… It is the task of the educational adventurer to reawaken or even to recreate this sense of beauty…’
Mansbridge (pictured left) established the organisation using his links to universities, trades unions, Co-operatives, and the clergy, who all agreed there was a need for an organisation where working class people could easily access education. He persuaded his wife Frances to lend him two shillings and sixpence to help set up an ‘Association to Promote the Higher Education of Working Men’; the name of the organisation was changed to the more inclusive Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) two years later.
The 2007 play ‘The Pitmen Painters’ by Lee Hall told the story of a group of early WEA students who were celebrated in the British art world of the 1930s and ‘40s. A group of Northumberland miners (including George Blessed, the actor Brian Blessed’s uncle), had started a WEA group and in 1934 wanted to do an art appreciation class. A formal learning structure wasn’t too appealing to them, so they started learning how to paint practically and the Ashington Group was born. The Group (also known as The Pitmen Painters,) captured every aspect of life in and around their mining community, above and below ground. A permanent exhibition of their work is now displayed in the Woodhorn Museum (shown pictured above; image credit: experiencewoodhorn.com).
Since those early days, the organisation has grown enormously and today it is supported by nearly 3,000 volunteers, 2,000 tutors and over 10,000 members. But the WEA still works in the heart of local communities to bring them high-quality, student-centred education, which stays true to the original spirit of Mansbridge’s vision of education as an adventure.
There is a large range of topics to choose from; including maths, English and vocational courses, to an eclectic mix of humanities and art subjects, with new courses being devised all the time. You don’t need any previous knowledge or qualifications to join most of the courses, only a willingness to share your curiosity, ideas and experience with other students.
I asked Maggie Drury, one of the students on my 2015 Introduction to Playwriting course, what she most enjoyed about it, and she described it like this: “Thought-provoking, inspiring and also guided students to complete their own short plays. Attending a local course with a practising playwright was the icing on the cake.”
The WEA does not own any teaching premises, so courses are held in a range of local venues right in the heart of the community. One of the newest places to host a class is Ideas Test in Sittingbourne where ‘Painting and Drawing; A Practical Approach’ is running on Friday afternoons.
This course will help attendees to develop and explore their personal creativity. Participants will be shown a variety of techniques and have time to experiment and build confidence in using them. It is led by tutor Deborah Crofts, a Folkestone-based artist whose solo work has been exhibited in places including Margam Sculpture Park, Wales, at the London College of Printing, Chimaera Gallery, Folkestone and in group exhibitions in London and Kent.
Deborah says: “The art sessions that I will be running at Ideas Test in Sittingbourne are the first WEA course to be run at the centre. It will offer the benefit of being run in the heart of the town, making it easy to access for all, but also it is anticipated that it will bring like-minded people together with a shared interest in developing their creative side in a relaxed and supportive atmosphere.”
True to its roots, the WEA is passionate about raising aspirations and developing educational opportunities for the most disadvantaged. This includes providing basic maths, English and IT skills for employment; courses to improve health and wellbeing; community engagement activities that encourage active citizenship and creative programmes to broaden students’ horizons such as The Creative Enablers programme run in partnership with the Turner Gallery in Margate.
Student Jo Eden, who earlier this year took part in a creative writing day school ‘Writing Sheppey’, also taught by me, says: “I took this course because I wanted to kick-start my creativity after a period of writer’s block and to be taken out of my comfort zone. The course was relaxed, sociable and thought-provoking. I was inspired by a variety of new techniques for writing creatively. I would highly recommend this type of course.”
WEA branches can be found throughout the country, and community courses are run in areas where there is no branch. Kent branches include Ashford and Wye, Canterbury, Herne Bay, Swale, Tenterden, Tonbridge and Sevenoaks, Tunbridge Wells, and Whitstable.
The new term has just begun in Kent, and if you are fast you could still register for some of the courses. Choose from a range of topics including history, literature, music appreciation, gardening, using computers, architecture, politics, philosophy and art appreciation. So why not get inspired? You never know, it might be the start of your own Pitmen Painters style learning adventure!
Could you share your passion for your subject?
The WEA are currently looking for new tutors in Kent. Do you have a specialist subject that you could teach for a couple of hours per week? Ideally you will have a teaching qualification, but if you’ve got informal experience of teaching adults, oodles of enthusiasm and great knowledge of your subject you may still be able to teach for the WEA.