Education, community and culture

It’s amazing where adult education can lead, especially if we follow students’ stories after the end of their courses. Who would have thought that a short, part-time course could make a lasting impression on a coastal community’s social, cultural and economic life?

Screen-next-the-Sea has become a fixture in the cultural scene of the Norfolk town of Wells. The local Eastern Daily Post reports (at how it began as an idea in a WEA course five years ago. Organisers held its second annual film festival this weekend, theming a three-day event around The Best of British. They presented a selection of films from across the British Isles.

The event has grown from a monthly showing at the Granary Theatre near the town’s quay to a twice-monthly screening, occasional matinees, live performances beamed in by satellite from the Bolshoi and National Theatre, and the film festival itself, complete with guest speakers.

The community cinema is friendly and intimate, with a loop system and surround sound. Nigel Baker, one of the projectionists, says that, “People like the cosy environment and the fact you get to know people.”

He said that an eight-week WEA course on Italian film sparked the idea of bringing cinema to the town. Mr Baker said: “We would like to think it will eventually attract people to the town like the well-established events like the carnival.”

All the tickets for a September showing of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time were sold out last year within a couple of hours. Other National Theatre productions relayed live from London to Wells included The Last of the Haussmans in October and Timon of Athens in November.

The WEA has been no stranger to film festivals in the last year. A new work by Turner Prize Nominee Luke Fowler was shown during 56th British Film Institute London Film Festival. The film explored the role played by WEA tutor E P Thompson in working class communities of post-war Yorkshire. His journals written during this time are read out in the film against the backdrop of contemporary and archival footage of the Yorkshire area. The film was shown originally for a season at the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield.

The WEA runs film courses and some community screenings in various locations across the country. We also have many more examples of self-organising groups growing from our courses, including writers’ circles, reading groups, community choirs and orchestras.

Why does cultural education matter?

“Arts Council chief accuses Gove of abandoning cultural education.”

This headline in the Guardian caught my eye earlier this week. You can read the full article about Dame Liz Forgan’s farewell to the Arts Council as Sir Peter Bazalgette prepares to take over as the new Chair at

Interestingly, Melvyn Bragg is also exploring the ‘The Value of Culture’ in a current BBC Radio 4 series examining the idea of culture and its evolution over the last 150 years. Podcasts are available at

Culture is one of the WEA’s four main educational themes and we have been mentioned in the Radio 4 programmes. Our other three educational themes are Employability, Health and Wellbeing and Community Engagement. We have distinctive approaches to each of these themes and work collaboratively to develop our curriculum. All the collectively developed text below explains why we think that cultural education is important in the WEA.

What do you think?

The WEA’s ‘Culture’ Theme

“WEA cultural education broadens horizons through understanding cultures, identities and environments embodying our commitment to social purpose”

Students on the WEA's 'Digability' community archaeology project

Students on the WEA’s ‘Digability’ community archaeology project

We believe that exploring culture helps people to understand the human experience, learning from the past, understanding the present and giving us resources to imagine and shape the future.

‘Culture’ is a very broad term and includes philosophy, music, literature, history, arts, religion, archaeology, science, economics, politics, media – and other subjects from cultures across the world. Studying these subjects enriches our lives and helps us to think creatively and critically as well as providing a basis for thinking about moral and ethical questions.

"Create a Radio Play" - a WEA course run in partnership with the homeless charity St Mungo’s

“Create a Radio Play” – a WEA course run in partnership with the homeless charity St Mungo’s

The notion of ‘art for art’s sake’ is of great value and learning about culture enriches lives regardless of any other benefits that result from such learning.

A journey through local history on the 'Pride of Tyne' ferry last year

A journey through local history on the ‘Pride of Tyne’ ferry last year

We know that learning about culture can cause life-changing personal development, teach us to engage with ideas critically and independently. Through such learning, students develop the skills, understanding and resilience to deal with change.

The insights we gain from history, drama, fiction, poetry, paintings and music can be transferred into other aspects of our lives. Learning about other cultures, achievements and experiences in different places and ages help us to understand the world.

Studying other people’s creativity challenges our students to develop their own creative thinking skills, which can prove useful for solving problems that they might encounter in the future. Creativity also promotes well-being.

Through ‘culture’, students can learn from each other and imagine the ways that other people live, or have lived, their lives. This encourages a greater ability for people to understand and learn from others’ experiences as well as about themselves.

Lee Hall based his 'Pitman Painters' hit play on a WEA art coursein the 1930s

Lee Hall based his ‘Pitman Painters’ hit play on a WEA art course in the 1930s

Our tutors are enthusiastic experts in their subject areas, who continue to learn and share high levels of academic expertise. Many are practising artists, writers, musicians and / or academic specialists in their subject areas. They nurture students’ creative instincts and curiosity.

It is important that understanding culture does not become exclusive or seen as ‘belonging’ to any dominant group or class so, as with other aspects of our activities, we work at neighbourhood levels creating accessible and affordable learning opportunities for people who might otherwise be marginalised.

We work in many partnerships for example with galleries, museums, theatres and archives. Our educational activities are part of the cultural fabric of England and Scotland and maximise wider cultural opportunities and access for WEA students and strengthen the voice of those who value cultural education.

Learning about Culture with the WEA can take many forms including study circles, events, seminars and visits as well as courses.