Camping & Socialism

Camping & Socialism Those who follow Michael Rosen’s twitter account (@michaelrosenyes) for more than his thoughts on Arsenal may have seen this week…

Camping & Socialism

Crime fiction: the writer as adult educator

In a rare sortie into the outside world this summer, we spent half a day in August visiting the Farne Islands. A group of 15-20 rocky islands in the North Sea (the precise number depends on the tide), they are managed by the National Trust, and are rightly famous for their wildlife and for their association with Grace Darling. They also featured in Series 7, Episode 1 of Vera.

The Vera novels, written by Ann Cleeves, are fine British police procedural novels. Cleeves’ central character is Detective Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope is a dishevelled, badly dressed, irrascible, overweight, stubborn, compassionate yet solitary-minded woman who is also an inspired investigator. Her character and appearance were softened for television, where she is played by the superb Brenda Blethyn. I enjoy both series, different though they are, not least for their Northumberland setting, but I’ve not spotted any obvious ties with the wonderful world of adult learning.

The author, though, is making her mark in the field. More precisely, she is contributing to literacy work through the Reading for Wellbeing project that she is funding. Through the projecct, community reading workers have undertaken training and are working with local health centres and others in disadvantaged north-eastern communities “support, empower and motivate individuals to take proactive steps to improve their health and wellbeing by providing practical help though access to books and spaces/places for reading, and emotional support through improved confidence in reading and relationship building”.

Cleeves describes the initiative as rooted in her own experience, in several ways. First is her own engagement with reading as a source of comfort while supporting her husband through profound mental health challenges. Second was her career as a librarian in Kirklees, where the local library service pioneered a social prescribing programme for patients with depression or chronic pain. Cleeves later went on to help set up reading groups for groups as diverse as prisoners, men in pubs, and bus drivers.

Cleeves is fnot the only successful crime writer with a track record of supporting adult learners. Among others, Martyn Waites, who worked with teenage ex-offenders before publishing crime fiction set in Newcastle, has held two writing residencies in prisons as well as delivering drama and creative writing workshops to socially excluded adults and teenagers in South London and Essex. And several crime authors have taught creative writing at one stage or another in their careers.

Returning to Ann Cleeves’ project, I’m afraid it’s all too easy to dismiss such initiatives such as too small to make a difference, or to say that the state should fund them rather than relying on individual charity. The reality is that all four governments in Britain don’t fund much family learning (the Kirklees programme stopped when its funding came to an end), and we have so far not managed to persuade governments that adult learning has to become a higher priority if we are to achieve a more inclusive, prosperous and sustainable society.

And we should remember our history. Adult education movements in many countries started life as voluntary initiatives long before the state became involved; in the UK we need only think of the literary and philosophical societies, the Adult School movement, or workers’ education to see the power of voluntarism in beating a path towards a wider recognition of the need for adult learning and education. Reading for Wellbeing is being evaluated, so let’s see what it can contribute – I certainly wish it well.

Adult education and municipal enterprise: Learning from the 80s

Reading Helen Jackson’s political memoir has been both a joy and an inspiration. It is essentially the story of her political life before becoming an MP, when she rose from activist to senior councillor at a time when local government was an exciting space for experiment and innovation as well as an important source of much-needed public services. Until, that is, the Thatcher government decided that local government needed its wings clipped.

Sheffield, where Helen taught, worked, and raised a family, stood at the centre of several significant developments. Before the mass unemployent of the early 1980s, the City Council was one of a number of radical local authorities that sought to protect and expand public services such as housing and education, and led a number of radical new policies such as South Yorkshire’s much-loved policy of freezing bus fares (I have happy memories of taking my daughter into town at the princely sum of 12p each way).

As unemployment hit hard at the region’s traditional (male) industries in the early 80s, the Council shifted to using its position as an employer and purchaser to promote local employment, promote equality of access to work, and to improve the quality of jobs on offer, while woeking in partnership with an initially reluctant business community to support enterprise and attract new jos. And it was striking how strong a role adult education played in this process.

Helen is well-placed to comment on these developments. As an increasingly vocal champion of women’s rights and advocate of racial justice, and as an influential elected office-holder responsible for the large direct works department, as well as being an educator herself, she is able to give an authoritative account of the part played by adult education in Sheffield’s municipal socialism.

Three of these initiatives are particularly worth mentioning. First is the opening of Northern College, the first residential adult college in the north of England, which stood out for its commitment to a broad conception of social justice which linked class, gender and ethnicity to its educational work, and continues to do important work with adults to this day. Keith Jackson, the College’s first deputy principal, was then Helen’s husband.

While the College partly emerged from the strong tradition of trade union education and industrial day release schemes in South Yorkshire, Helen also points to other important influences in the Workers’ Educational Association and some of the innovative community development work launched by the Home Office in 1969. She notes that the College was an early adopter of free childcare for students, initially funded by an outside grant and later absorbed into the ongoing budget.

Second, Helen describes the pioneering work of the women who challenged gender stereotyping in traditionally male manual crafts. It’s easy now to forget how innovative – and controversial – it was for women to train as garage mechanics or builders, and then work successfully in their new trades. Women from this group went on to train others through further education and through new training programmes for women, as well as helping influence the Council to adopt gender monitoring in its own employment practices.

The third pioneering initiative was the Take Ten scheme of paid educational leave for the Council’s manual workers. As the name implied, Council workers could take a day a week off to attend a tailored course for ten weeks; against expectations, some 270 attended in the first year alone, with priority going to the low-paid and those with no previous qualifications.

There were others. For example, the Council established a Community Work Apprenticeship Scheme, recruiting people from disadvantaged backgrounds to train as community workers rather than relying on the largely white middle class graduates who would otherwise have taken these roles. There’s also the informal learning that informed Helen’s gender politics, among other areas. But that’s probably enough to give a flavour of the book’s account of adult eduction’s contribution to municipal enterprise in the conditions of the 1980s.

It’s striking to work out how much of this thinking and experience was carried over into the early Blair years after 1997, when Helen became Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Particularly while David Blunkett was Secretary of State for Education, the early Blair government supported and promoted lifelong learning as a vehicle for employability and social justice, in ways that have still to be systematically evaluated; but it is also striking that the Labour governments subsequently back-pedalled on much of this work.

What conclusions do I draw from this? First, the book provides a coherent account of adult learning’s role in promoting social change and civic engagement as well as economic regeneration. Second, it shows how local government can serve as a test-bed for broader strategies – something worth remembering given the devolution of adult education budgets to the English regions.

Third, and most important, it made me wonder why the 1997-99 innovations were so easily overturned. On Helen Jackson’s account, the Sheffield adult education measures were popular as well as effective, so that opposition was eventually overcome. But that wasn’t the experience at national level.

With the benefit of hindsight, I’m not convinced that after 1997 we – the adult learning community – did enough to generate enthusiasm and build support for the new policies. Consequently the Treasury found it easy to persuade later ministers that adult education was all cost and no benefit, and could cheerfully be dismissed as a luxury rather than a national necessity.

Entertaining the unemployed: a musical revue in a British work camp 1938

Aerial photo of Haldon Instructional Centre (from Haldon’s Hidden Heritage)

Haldon Instructional Centre was the only government work camp to open in south-west England. Opened in December 1936 with a capacity of 200 places, and located on the Haldon Hills half way between Exeter and Dawlish, the camp was built to take unemployed men from Wales and the south west and north west of England.

As with the other 26 Ministry of Labour camps, the primary purpose was to ‘recondition’ men who had supposedly gone ‘soft’ through unemployment by exposing them to hard manual labour. Conditions The men lived in Nissen huts and worked to clear rough land and build roads so that the estate wad ready for planting by the Forestry Commission. According to a report in the Daily Worker in 1937, the men were “subjected, from 8 am to 4 pm, to an extremely severe discipline”.

But there was also another side to camp life. Early experience had taught the Ministry of Labour that isolating 200 young men in a forest camp was a recipe for trouble; it also discovered that many young unemployed men had trouble reading or writing, or were held back by poor underlying health, so that the camps became a kind of laboratory for adult education and free dental, medical or eyesight care.

As for misbehaviour, the Ministry concluded that the problem lay in boredom. Through the thirties it increasingly approved provision for organised leisure, from film showings to sports teams. And it agreed to allow well-meaning locals to perform in front of the men – a decision that from the Ministry’s point of view brought several benefits: it entertained the trainees while also showing that others cared for them; and it gave a positive public impression of the camp to visitors and more widely.

Devon and Exeter Gazette, 11 February 1938

Like the other Ministry of Labour camps, Haldon closed shortly before the outbreak of war in September 1939. The camp concert was far from unique – similar events took place at other work camps, but always with the approval of the camp authorities, who had their own reasons for entertaining the unemployed. You can read more about a range of British work camp schemes in my book, Working Men’s Bodies: Work camps in Britain 1880-1940.

Batley and Spen: An adult educator enters Parliament

Kim Leadbeater speaking at the launch of the Government’s loneliness strategy in 2018 (Tracey Crouch, the Minister, is on the right)

The Batley and Spen by-election was marked by heightened religious and political tensions during the campaign, followed by a result that upset the bookmakers’ expectations and overturned the predictions of many political commentators. And it returned a candidate who is best-known outside the constituency for being the sister of a murdered former MP, but locally is probably best known as an adult educator.

Kim Leadbeater started her working life in sales before becoming a mature student at Leeds Beckett University. She took a first class Bachelor’s degree in health and fitness, followed by a PGCE in further education at Huddersfield University, which she achieved while lecturing part-time at Bradford College in physical activity, health and well-being, as well as working for herself as a personal trainer and well-being consultant.

According to her LinkedIn profile, Leadbeater left the College after ten years in 2016, but continued her private teaching until her selection in May. She has also been active in a number of voluntary roles, most notably as an ambassador for the Jo Cox Foundation, set up to honour her sister’s memory by working for community cohesion and social justice (this is the capacity in which Tracey Crouch invited Leadbeater to help launch the government’s loneliness strategy).

In a House of Commons full of people whose careers were either in student unions, policy think tanks or piublic relations, Batley and Spen’s new MP brings many years of experience in adult education as well as a track record of advocacy for equity and inclusion. She’ll have a lot competing demands on her time and energy, but I’m very much hoping she still finds space to argue the case for adult learners.

Adult Education under Pandemic Conditions: Challenges & Perspectives

Across the world, the pandemic has transformed adult education. After over a year, some governments are looking at a falling number of infections, and starting to relax restrictions; elsewhere, the situation is deteriorating. It seems as good time as any to take stock of the pandemic’s impact and the sector’s response, and this Call for Papers is therefore highly timely:

The Coronavirus pandemic has disrupted all aspects of life, including lifelong learning and adult education. It has had a profound impact on the formats, demand, and opportunities for adult education. Most notably, there has been an increase in digital formats and online learning, whereas many forms of in-person instruction were postponed, canceled, or reduced in scope. On the supply side, the pandemic has shaped the conditions under which providers can operate and offer instruction. Regarding participants, demand for adult education has increased in some areas because changes in working and living conditions triggered by the pandemic require new skills and decreased in others due to fear of infection.

As all great disruptions, the pandemic also offers potential for creative innovation and long-term change. Now that the pandemic is in its second year, it is possible to both review the impact the pandemic has had so far as well as take a first outlook at prospective ways in which the past year will transform adult education in the future.

The editors invite submissions that discuss the impact the pandemic has had on adult education, broadly defined. Topics might include but are not limited to changes in instruction and participation, the impact the pandemic has had on educators, learners and institutions, increased digitalization and associated challenges, social inequality and vulnerable groups, and changing demand and supply for specific subfields or subgroups.

The Call is from the leading German journal for adult & further education research, the Zeitschrift für Weiterbildungsforschung. The journal is refereed, publishes open access contributions in English and German, and is issued by the prestigious Deutsches Institut für Erwachsenenbildung. The CfP will soon appear on the journal’s website, but in the meantime you can send queries to Dr. Kerstin Hoenig of the DIE at:

Reading in Lockdown 2.0: The fourth month

26 March – 25 April

I seem to have read more than usual this month, though I’ve no idea why. However, I’ve not yet finished Jill Lepore’s excellent survey of America’s past (it’s long, unsurprisingly).


Shalom Auslander, Hope: A tragedy

Yousra Imran, Hijab and Red Lipstick

Krischan Koch, Mordseekrabben

Deborah Massan, Out for Blood

Peter Robinson, Not Dark Yet

Theodore Storm, The Rider on the White Horse

Dagmar Maria Toschka, Alte Anker rosten nicht


Roy Foster, On Seamus Heaney

Jill Lepore, These Truths: A history of the United States

Worlds apart: Education and Britain’s inequality problem

All in this together? The COVID-19 pandemic is still with us, and seems likely to be a part of our lives, in some form, for some time to come. It has…

Worlds apart: Education and Britain’s inequality problem

Reading in lockdown 2.0

26 February – 25 March


Edna O’Brien, Girl

Klaus-Peter Wolf, Ostfriesenzorn

Lucy Foley, The Hunting Party

Daniel Kehlmann, Tyll

Ella Danz, Osterfeuer


Jill Lepore, These Truths: A history of the United States

Rob White, BFI Film Classics: The Third Man

A digital citizenship agenda for educators

“Greater digital literacy is often the recommendation for dealing with the effects of social media within society, but this ignores the fact that …

A digital citizenship agenda for educators