The first Workers Educational Association was established in Britain in 1906.  The idea quickly reached New Zealand, with the first one established at meeting in Auckland on 21 October 1914.  AWEA is the oldest non-formal adult education organisation in this country.  

The history of the AWEA has both influenced and been influenced by changes in adult education and in NZ society ever since: an early example is that Michael Savage and two members of his cabinet were members of the first AWEA economics class.  AWEA has provided leadership in development of many educational innovations that then become part of mainstream provision:

  • the union education movement initially
  • prison education in the 1920s
  • distance education from the 1930s, and much more recently, e-learning 
  • the earliest women’s studies programmes (in the 1960s)
  • adult literacy programmes (for example, ARLA, which became Literacy Aotearoa, started as an AWEA project in the 1970s)
  • the only Treaty education centre in the country (established in 2004)