Ncfe At 175: Revolution, Progress, And The Society Of Tomorrow

Issue 94

As the oldest awarding organisation in the UK, NCFE started life in the North East with the belief that education should always be the great leveller. 175 years on, Deborah Jenkins MBE, Chair of the charity's Board of Trustees, looks at what was happening at the time of its formation and explains why that philosophy is needed again today.

Back when what is now NCFE was founded in 1848, change and revolution were sweeping through Europe and beyond. From France and Hungary to Brazil, people were rising up against rulers and deposing regimes.

Garibaldi returned to Italy and started the military campaigns against the Austrian Empire which would lead to the reunification of Italy. Marx was fomenting revolution in Berlin, Paris and London.

The North East of England was going through a golden age of industry, growth, extraordinary new technology and scientific advancement. Mining, shipbuilding and engineering were booming, and architectural marvels were being built throughout the region’s cities.

In Newcastle alone, William Armstrong opened his gigantic Elswick Works, William Smith launched the Blenheim from his shipyard on the Tyne, Robert Stephenson was appointed as chief engineer of the new Newcastle and Berwick railway line, and the new High Level bridge across the Tyne opened.

The beautiful Catholic cathedral had been completed by Pugin the year before, and the grand Central Station would be opened by Queen Victoria two years later. The Newcastle School of Medicine and Surgery had been founded 15 years earlier and already had grand buildings in the centre of the city and a great pride in the expertise it was bringing to the region.

There was a huge and constant demand for skilled workers and the industrialists, scientists and landowners of the North East knew that they had to fuel this growth and prosperity – not only by drawing in experienced people from far afield, but by providing training and opportunities for the people in the poor slums of the cities and the isolated villages of the rural communities.

Within this cauldron of change, they came together to found the Northern Union of Mechanics’ Institutes (what is now known as NCFE) to “become a centre from whence the elements of knowledge and civilisation shall go on with an unceasing progress, conferring intellectual, scientific and moral blessings throughout the length and breadth of the Northern Counties.”

175 years later, in 2023, we are once again in a time of change and turbulence. Advances in technology and industry are quite literally unbelievable to some older generations and have unknown consequences for the young who are growing up in a world which may not provide them with the opportunities for work which were assumed by previous generations.

There is once again the spirit of social unrest in the air. Dissatisfaction with inequalities, rejection of old norms and aspirations by many, and an overwhelming sense for some that existing structures and systems are not keeping pace with the speed of change create a sense of anxiety which often outweighs the exhilaration of the new.

Our charitable mission at NCFE has not fundamentally changed all that much since that of our founders in 1848. We continue to devote our resources to shaping learning for the society of today so that it is fit for the society of tomorrow. We want people of all ages and stages of life to find learning that helps them to enter and navigate an increasingly volatile and challenging labour market.

Increasingly, we are looking for ways to strengthen the cross-cutting and underpinning human skills which will build resilience, agility, creativity and adaptability, as well as the technical and vocational skills aiming at particular sectors.

Like our founders, we believe in the great power of learning to transform lives and unlock unexpected futures – and as the guardians entrusted with NCFE’s future, we will continue to do our best to “go on with unceasing progress”.

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