A hundred years ago it was recognised that University extension lectures were not reaching working people, and the establishment of The Workers Educational Association as a partnership between ‘labour and learning’ was the result.
One product of a 1930s WEA course was the establishment of an Art Group in the north eastern mining community at Ashington. Lee Hall, who wrote Billy Elliott, has been inspired by a book about the Group by William Feaver to write a new play, which we went to see at the National Theatre on Saturday night (when we had gone down to London to take one of my step-children and all his stuff to begin University life himself). Feaver notes that the Groups ‘strength lay in their ability to depict as insiders what others could only see from afar and romanticise or politicise’.
The story was well told with minimum props and with the simple use of projection of the Group’s pictures on to a screen above the action on the stage. It was also a vehicle for extended and intriguing discussion of issues of the meaning of art, and of issues of class and patronage (although we did wonder whether the original audiences in Newcastle laughed in all the same places). Hall notes ‘the idea that art is somehow a commodity, that culture is something one consumes rather than takes part in, is, of course, a very modern notion... that the Group chose to make art both central to their lives but removed from the ‘economy’ of the art world seems very significant’.
With a walk to and from the Theatre through a crowded Thames-side festival, it was quite a treat. And as we meet later today to put the North East Lincolnshire Partnership Board and initial plans in place for the new local Learning Communities grant, I was glad to have had this reminder of a much earlier and very different approach to the issues of access to and aspiration for education in deprived communities from the point of view of those involved.
The photograph of the spire of St Brides’, Fleet Street was taken from our hotel bedroom.