THE Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) was founded in 1903 and is the largest voluntary sector provider of adult education in England and Scotland.
I worked for the WEA for six years until this year, supporting the Business Development Team until this year. It was an organisation I looked up to, being involved in helping working-class people from council estates, such as myself.
From the start I was concerned about the low level of male learners in the education and training delivered by WEA. Details about learners are included in an annual Impact Report. Throughout my time (2016-21) the proportion of male learners was between 23 per cent and 26 per cent.
I looked forward to the number for 2022 and guess what? It is not included in the Impact Report. I wonder why – embarrassment, humiliation, is it the victim’s fault? I didn’t ask why, but I did ask for the figure: still just 24 per cent.
I reflected that if the figures were reversed would they be met with complete insouciance? I doubt it. I’m sure there would be an action plan, targets, monthly reporting and a director given responsibility for women’s engagement.
I raised this issue on a number of occasions to senior management and during team, directorate and national meetings. It was universally ignored. The WEA approach to this issue is exemplified in their marketing materials. Every Impact Report from 2017 onwards has exclusively a woman represented on the front page (page 2 for the 2019 report). My request to include a man on the front of the 2021 report went ignored. In fact throughout the years I struggled to find a picture of a male learner on any of the landing pages. You will find representations of men on the website but I think you will find they are primarily senior management or trustees! Perhaps there is a marketing rule that I am not aware of whereby you don’t represent the audience you are failing!
We know that the least likely cohort to go to university is boys from poor white backgrounds, the constituency WEA was originally set up to help. Not any more!
Increasingly in the WEA I heard anti-male sexist comments during meetings. Women members of staff were quite comfortable making such remarks, secure in the knowledge that there would be no comeback. The most disgusting of these was during a discussion about the future of WEA branches on a Zoom meeting. A woman member of staff said: ‘Well, they are only full of retired old men anyhow.’ Really?
· You mean the retired old men who would have spent upwards of 40 years paying tax to fund organisations such as the WEA?
· The retired old men who fought and worked in our armed, blue-light and security services, keeping us safe?
· The retired old men who worked in industries where 94 per cent of workplace fatalities are male?
· The retired old men, some of whom would have had to have waited five years longer than retired old women to claim State Retirement Pension despite shorter life expectancy?
Reform of the WEA branch structure has been talked about for a couple of years with a number of proposals being aired, including moving to a thematic approach to branches (e.g. women’s and ‘green’ branches) but by the time I left the no details had been finalised. Let’s see what impact the reform will have on the male/female percentage of learners.
During my time there the WEA went from a charity delivering education with a social purpose to one promoting ‘social justice’. Unless you are a retired old man or an unretired young one!