Next month is the 50th Anniversary of the National Extension College. In other words it pre-dates the Open University and stands as a pioneer of open learning: courses open to all, taken by distance education via materials written by experts and posted to the learner. It pre-dates CBT, resource based learning and any number of learning innovations that were designed to narrow the gap between desire to learn and access to courses and programmes.
It was set up as one of Michael Young’s (Lord Young of Dartington) many social enterprises as was specifically established out of the Advisory Centre for Education in Cambridge to be a precursor and testing site for the, then, nascent Open University which established itself a few years later down the road in Milton Keynes.
Whereas the OU was a degree awarding University with its own Royal Charter, the NEC was a charity looking at the gaps in the learning market, from Zoo Keeping qualifications to ‘O’ and ‘A’ level programmes. It was famous as a pre-OU testing ground for students and as the supplier of materials for the FE sector as it, too, began to offer outreach ‘flexiStudy’ programmes. My own Mother achieved her first ever educational qualifications ( a few ‘O’ Levels and an ‘A’ level) with the NEC.
It has pioneered and persevered for half a century with virtually no external funding or government grant. It grew, it flourished and bought a swathe of land on the outskirts of Cambridge which it called the Michael Young Centre, to be a hub for not for profits and arts organisations as well as home to the NEC. At its peak it employed nearly 100 staff and met the learning needs of over 45,000 students. Yet it was laid low in this century by a failure to modernise; several fairly disastrous appointments of leader and the foolhardy decision to merge with the LSN which led to its demise as part of that organisation’s massive debt and misplaced ambition.
But it was brought back to life by a former long-standing CEO Ros Morpeth who came out of retirement to rescue NEC from the receiver and then from its old, tired ways. So at 50 it is surviving and remaking itself for this century. Michael Young would have been proud. For such a modest undertaking in the 60s it proved resilient and robust as it rode wave after wave of fashion and foible. It flourished under the BBC Computer Literacy Programme in the 1980s with its ubiquitous 30 Hour Basic course that did not quite turn us all into programming gurus. It developed early computer-based (BBC Micro naturally) marking software and plunged into management development with the BBC Worldwide as a partner. There are also hundreds of graduates of the joint degree that Coca Cola ran with the NEC. All this time, the bed-rock of ‘O’ and ‘A’ level courses continued unabated. It ran national programmes linked to various national initiatives, it worked with libraries and colleges and even went into a quiet partnership with the Open University, and a more vociferous one with the Open Tech Programme. So many of these initiatives are long forgotten but the NEC lives on to fight another day.
There must be hundreds of thousands of students grateful to the NEC for helping them take the first steps back into learning; I hope that next month they will quietly raise a glass in tribute. After all, no one associated with the NEC would like to make a fuss. Quietly it will get in with its task. Quietly meet the learning needs of adults, and quietly move forward to its 100th anniversary. Ros Morpeth will probably not be at the helm in 50 years time, but her spirit of quiet determination will certainly live on.
I was a Trustee of NEC for 14 years up until 2005.