NEC is a pioneer of online and distance learning, existing to transform lives through education.

Our mission is simple: NEC seeks to widen learning opportunities for learners who want flexible delivery of excellent and innovative courses.

We help our students to open doors to their futures, through life-changing learning. In particular we offer educational opportunities and second-chance learning to people for whom attending regular classes at school or college would not be possible.

The College was founded in 1963 by Michael Young and Brian Jackson as a forerunner for the Open University. Writing at the time, Michael Young said; “We were searching for education without institution, learning while earning, courses which people of all ages could take in their own time, at their own pace.”

Today, led by Esther Chesterman, we are a long-standing independent educational charity and part of the Open School Trust.

As well as providing online distance learning courses directly to students, we also provide learning materials and resources to schools, colleges and training providers, and learning programmes for companies, government and the rest of the public sector.

For more than 55 years we have forged a reputation for the highest quality learning materials and innovation in distance learning, alongside a deep commitment to providing exceptional support to our learners at every stage of their learning experience. Our tried and tested infrastructure, approach and materials fully support the needs of 21st century learners.

NEC's founders

Michael Young, Lord Young of Dartington

Michael Young believed in open learning and in the early 1960s identified a generation of adults whose lives had been disrupted by the Second World War, who would want to come back to education but would need the educational provision to fit around their lives.

A social entrepreneur and Labour politician, he founded the National Extension College (NEC), along with Brian Jackson, in 1963, and used his vision and energy to get many initiatives designed to help individuals and families get off the ground. These included the Open University and International Extension College – both of which had particular links to the NEC; the University of the Third Age; International Research Foundation for Open Learning (IRFOL); the Open School and the Open College of the Arts; the Consumers Association (WHICH); and the Advisory Centre for Education (ACE).

With his charismatic leadership and forward-looking attitude, Michael Young was a visionary ahead of his time.

“I would add to the mantra of open learning, ‘open as to people, places, methods and ideas’ – open to experiment, especially anything that adds to its humanity.” Michael Young, writing in the Times Higher Educational Supplement in 2001

Brian Jackson

Co-founder of the National Extension College, Brian Jackson nurtured NEC from his role as director of the Advisory Centre for Education (ACE). In NEC’s first ten years he used his skills as a writer, educator, publicist and fundraiser to support NEC, and the College was launched by an article in ACE’s magazine ‘Where?’ in the autumn of 1963.

He went on to help found the National Children’s Centre and proposed a series of television programmes to the BBC which in turn led to the foundation of the National Childminding Association (now called the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY)).

NEC's Chief Executive

NEC is led by Esther Chesterman. 

Esther has an impressive track record of leadership in education and training, spanning more than 20 years. She brings to the NEC experience in corporate governance, change management, quality assurance, online learning systems, international assessment and turnaround business strategies.

After completing an undergraduate degree and masters in law Esther spent the early part of her career in retail management, training and development. She managed and owned (from 2004-2010) The Profile Partnership – a work-based training provider that delivered NVQs and apprenticeships across East Anglia. Esther then spent five years as Access to HE manager and quality lead at Cambridge Regional College. She also taught GCSEs and A levels in law and business, and oversaw the quality of the College’s international programme. Moving to Cambridge Assessment International Education (which is part of the University of Cambridge) she managed the development, quality and assessment of a suite of teaching and learning diplomas for over 13,000 schools in around 62 countries.

In 2018 Esther joined NCC Education – an awarding body specialising in computing and business qualifications. As general manager she was responsible for a network of 180 partner centres in 60 countries. The organisation was awarded exporter of the year (in 2019) by the Federation of Awarding Bodies.

Esther is committed to improving access to education for all, particularly people from marginalised groups. She is on the board of trustees of the Global Girl Project, a charity that mobilises young women around the globe to achieve social change through community development and social action. She is currently supporting the organisation with fundraising for a new online programme and, together with her daughter, raised £1000 by walking 500 miles over a month.

People at NEC

At NEC, our staff are at the core of what we do. They are dedicated to providing a first-class service, and are always looking for ways to improve how the College provides and delivers education. Our culture is one of friendliness, hard work, informality and respect. We are fortunate to work with staff, authors, tutors, directors and trustees of the very highest calibre.

NEC is made up of a team of experienced professionals committed to working together to provide excellent service. Our materials are designed and written by experienced authors who are qualified subject experts and have contributed their knowledge and academic expertise. Our excellent tutors also help with authoring and consultancy and bring first-hand experience of students’ needs.


The first port of call for our students, and the members of the NEC team they’re likely to have most contact with, is our expert group of tutors. NEC has dozens of specialist tutors teaching its subjects, each of whom is experienced in tutoring via distance learning and will be on hand to help you through your course. 

Meet our tutors.

NEC's board of Trustees

NEC is part of the Open School Trust, an educational charity guided by a board of trustees. Each bringing a unique set of experience and skills to the charity, the trustees are responsible for guiding NEC’s overall direction and meet regularly to discuss how to further its work. 

Meet our Trustees.

Looking to the future of NEC

From looking at how technology can enhance distance learning to exploring different pedagogical methods, a spirit of innovation is what drives NEC forward as we continue to:

  • Invest in course development, going back to first principles and thinking about learning design.
  • Make learning available to everyone, enabling even more students to apply learning to their lives by enrolling on distance learning courses.
  • Pilot new ways of learning, giving our students access to the things they need to succeed.

To achieve this, we plan to do what we do now, but look for ways to do it better:

  • Use technology as a tool to deliver courses in a flexible way and continue to provide excellent learning support.
  • Continue to invest in the best curricula, technology and tutors and to share innovation and resources with the wider education sector.
  • Ensure the relationship between tutor and student remains central to NEC’s teaching ethic.
  • Continue to build a network of partner organisations with whom we can work, to offer learning opportunities widely to individuals and the workforce.

Campaigning for easier access to distance learning for all

At NEC, we work hard to make access to education easier for all distance learning students, collaborating with other organisations to access the latest developments in the world of education, and campaigning on issues affecting distance learners.

A public exam system that works for everyone

Our 2016 campaign for a public exam system that works for everyone was successful in bringing about a change in the way non-exam assessments (NEA) for A level and GCSE qualifications are carried out. As a result of the changes in procedure made by the awarding bodies, private candidates can now study mainstream subjects on an equal footing with students in schools and colleges.

The campaign was supported by the Times Educational Supplement (TES), WEA, UCAS and the Open University, with the TES describing it as a “terrible blow averted for distance learners”. Following the successful campaign, NEC was nominated for the TES Further Education Marketing and Communications Campaign of the Year award.

Removing barriers and reversing the decline in the number of students studying part-time

NEC is one of the voices campaigning to reverse the decline in the number of students studying part-time, collaborating with the Open University to remove barriers for adults who want to continue studying, and reverse the decline in the number of adults entering higher education.

Examinations for external candidates

Back in 1992 NEC spearheaded a successful campaign to keep GCSE examinations for external candidates. As a result, independent adult learners continue to have access to these important qualifications.

The About NEC brochure

Working in partnership

NEC works in close partnership with a wide range of organisations to promote and provide educational opportunities. We are the trusted partner of schools, colleges, the armed forces, the prison service, trainers, companies, and the public sector, providing high-quality materials and learning programmes. Find out more about our partner organisations.