Labour Research June 2009



The lost legacy of independent working class education

Colin Waugh, Post-16 Educator, 28 pages, A4 magazine, £3.00

A century ago students and former students at Oxford’s Ruskin College founded the League of the “Plebs”.

The Plebs became the independent working class education movement, helping the working class to educate its own cadre of thinkers and organisers. This pamphlet is a centenary celebration of a great episode in labour movement history. It recounts the development of a movement of middle class intellectuals who wanted to “do something” for working people, through to the founding of the Workers Educational Association (WEA) in 1903.

It assesses the impact of socialist organisations such as the ILP, SDF and SLP as well as left-wing publishers like Charles Kerr in providing a literature for workers to educate themselves. The interaction between the top-down paternalism of do-gooders and lecturers and the bottom-up challenge made by working class students is brought out clearly. The pamphlet recounts the story of the 1909 strike at Ruskin college and the role played by a number of sadly-forgotten and now little-known activists, who deserve to be rescued from obscurity.

In particular this valuable study draws out how worker-students developed their own conception of education, and of curriculum and methods of learning, which are highly relevant to trade union education today.