My career in the movies

The Moor in Sheffield before its recent modernization, copyright Peter Barr

The Moor before its recent modernization, copyright Peter Barr

Thirty years ago today, at 9.30 pm, the BBC screened Threads, a drama about the effects of a nuclear attack on the city of Sheffield. It had an audience of 6.9 millions on first showing, and was nominated for seven BAFTAs, winning three of them including Best Single Drama. It was an ambitious project, taking a neo-realistic approach that combined elements of documentary with an almost soap-like family narrative. And I was in it.

The BBC had tried to produce a docu-drama about nuclear war before. Peter Watkin’s 1965 film The War Game was banned by the then Labour Government, though like most of my friends I had seen it – in my case several times. By 1984, Cold War tensions remained high, with Britain placing itself in the front line through its acceptance of US missile bases and Mrs Thatcher’s expressed willingness to use Trident. Unsurprisingly, the peace movement was experiencing a huge revival.

I had joined the Sheffield branch of END, a Europe-wide movement that attacked nuclear weapons of both East and West; this set it apart from CND in Sheffield, whose leading activists included Communists who dismissed END as “Trotskyite”. I don’t know how much success we had, though we had a very large meeting in the City Hall with the historian E P Thompson as our main speaker, and of course we enjoyed the much larger CND marches. Although I think the filming took place before the miners’ strike broke out, there were already plenty of other tensions as Thatcherism ate into the industrial heartland of South Yorkshire.

A BBC drama about nuclear war, in this polarised and highly charged atmosphere, was always going to be controversial. Looking at the Times for the following days, I see that Mary Whitehouse, then a very influential figure, attacked the BBC for screening the film, whose makers received around 100 letters – quite a post-bag in those pre-email days – most of which supported the decision. The BBC also organised a studio discussion, with the Labour politician Robin Cook vigorously defending the film.

And my own part? From where I stood, it was important to support and help this project; the script writer, the author Barry Hines, was a friend of a friend, so I was among the first to get my name down when the appeal for extras went out. I also offered to take my son and his half-brothers (I hope I asked them first!).

What I remember is waiting in the City Hall while the producers selected the likely extras, then hanging around for what seemed like ages on the Moor, a pedestrianized shopping street. I drank some watery coffee. The four of us were filmed marching along with a banner in a demonstration, and later we had to lie down on the pavement and pretend to be dead. Then we went home.

The future of lifelong learning in the European Commission

Mariane Thyssen, the incoming Commissioner for Employment

Mariane Thyssen, the incoming Commissioner for Employment

Where should political responsibility lie for lifelong learning? Should its home lie in the ministry responsible for education, or in the government department that handles employment? There is a case for each: coherence within education, or synergies within employment. And different countries have different structures, which can also change from time to time.

Within the EU, the new Commission will see a significant shift. Jean-Claude Juncker, the incoming President of the Commission, has announced that several departmental portfolios will be ‘reshaped and streamlined’. Among these, responsibility for adult education and vocational training will be transferred from education to employment, a decision that is almost certain to take effect from November.

This means that two important parts of the lifelong learning system will now sit within an expanded Directorate General for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility. As well as inheriting policy remits and staff who ran programmes such as GRUNTVIG and LEONARDO, the DG also acquires responsibility for three EU agencies: the European Centre for Development of Vocational Training (CEDEFOP), the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound), and the European Training Foundation (ETF).

The good news is that the Employment DG is considerably larger and more powerful than its Education counterpart. It has historically played a major role in promoting labour mobility across the EU, as well as in developing and administering some of the structural funds, both areas where there are synergies for adult learning. It is usually led by a political big-hitter, in this case Commissioner Mariane Thyssen, a former leader of the Flemish Christian Democrats (the same party as Herman van Rompuy, President of the European Council).

In addition, President Juncker has asked both the Commissioners for Education and for Employment to co-ordinate their activities, and to report through the same Vice-President. Previously largely an honorific role, Vice-Presidents in the new Commission will have a portfolio of activities that they are expected to ‘co-ordinate and steer’. In this case, both Commissioners will be steered by the VP for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness.

So to some extent, the EU is ‘vocationalising’ all of its policies for education, including higher education and schools. But if this is a wider trend, adult learning in particular is being pushed unambiguously into the field of employment and social affairs, and separated out from the rest of the lifelong learning system. It is also moving out of a DG that specialises in student mobility programmes, and into one much more concerned with sharp end policy. What this will mean in practice is, though, still to be seen.

One risk is that in a larger directorate with a strong focus on tackling the current crisis of employment, adult learning will simply get lost in the noise. This risk is higher for me because it comes at a time when the Commission has set targets for reducing its staff levels. So one simple message, then, is that those who are interested in adult learning need to lobby policy makers – including Members of the European Parliament – and ensure that adult learners’ needs and voices are heard.

There is also a danger that the Employment DG will adopt the narrowest, skills-based definition of adult learning. However, against this we can set the experience of many in the UK and elsewhere, who have found that adult learning can thrive when placed alongside strategies for employment and social inclusion.

And it is worth remembering that the Employment DG carries responsibility for social affairs, including the Social Fund; and that as well as ‘promoting vocational training and lifelong learning’, the President has asked Commissioner Thyssen to address a range of issues – including digital skills, population aging and welfare ‘modernisation’ – that also have an adult learning dimension. So how professionals and institutions position themselves in relation to this agenda will affect the outcome.

Overall, then, I see some grounds for concern in the transfer of responsibility to an expanded DG for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility. And of course, this is taking place at a time when the Commission as a whole is shifting firmly to the centre-right. But I also see some potential benefits and synergies, as well as opportunities to raise the profile of adult learning as a field. As ever, it will be partly up to us to shape the direction that events now take.

Civic learning and the referendum (plus how I voted)

A ballot box and a flag - symbols of the nation state

A ballot box and a flag – symbols of the nation state

There’s been a lot of self-congratulation over the quality of the civic debate during Scotland’s referendum. Some of this is self-serving puffery, of course, but there is also some truth in it – enough anyway for Paul Stanistreet, whom I respect greatly, to join the chorus. Away from the partisan world of the campaigns, a lot of people have sat with friends or workmates – as well as with strangers – discussing the sort of society that Scotland is, and what it might become.

I don’t want to romanticise this. The 22 bus stop has not, in my experience, become a focal point of englightenment rationalism; if we talk at all, it is usually to grumble about the weather or the litter. And the public debate over the referendum has also had a truly nasty, dark side; I have friends on both sides who have been threatened in the streets, for example; journalists claim they have been intimidated; terms like “racist”, “quisling” and “traitor” are flung around freely; people with opposing views are shouted down, property with the ‘wrong’ posters has been damaged.

Much of this is low level stuff. Personally, I have experienced verbal abuse from a Yesser in a white van who mistakenly thought I was wearing an England football shirt (he had the grace to apologise when he realised he was mistaken). And I was attacked for blogging about research funding policy by a unionist academic, not because of my analysis but because I am a jumped up ignoramus who should not write about important matters I don’t understand (no chance of an apology from her). So I see claims of a fabulous discussion as pretty implausible.

This isn’t to say that all the debate has been a horror show – far from it. I was particularly impressed by those who organised community meetings with outside speakers, recruited not from the campaigns, but from those with expert knowledge who might explore the evidence and ideas of the campaigns. David Bell, my former colleague from the University of Stirling and an eminent economist, addressed several such meetings. In my experience, they were sceptical of both sides, but very interested in an informed debate, and concerned over the hothouse atmosphere of the wider public argument.

Interestingly, these town and village meetings seem to have gone ahead without any involvement by public adult education bodies. A handful of courses on the background to the referendum has been held, mostly by the university adult education units and the Workers Educational Association, while local authority services continue their broader work on civic literacy.

Perhaps those working in the public adult education service decided that the risk of being branded a supporter of either side was too great. This is probably a wise decision, though it does provoke comparisons with the courage of those who organise adult learning in far more conflictual circumstances. And like everyone else, we only realised rather late in the day that so many people would want to know more about the background in which the referendum was being held.

But there is a problem with saying, as the European Adult Education Association tweeted this week, ‘Adult education can equip people to make an informed decision’. Public information has itself become a pawn in the political game. If anyone suggests that the public do not have sufficient information, there is a possibility, even a probability that someone will say that this is tantamount to telling Scots they are too ignorant to understand the issues.

So my overall view is that we have not seen the civic renaissance that Paul Stanistreet and others have welcomed, and that only a few courageous adult educators have stepped in to provide the kind of social purpose learning that is required.

As for my vote, it was a Yes. I’ve always intended to vote Yes, largely on the grounds that democracy is best served by making government as close to the people as possible. That doesn’t mean that I have swallowed the nationalist rhetoric, much less that I have bought in to the claims about equity and social justice that the Yes campaign adopted after its market researchers found how well these issues resonated with Labour voters. I don’t hate or despise those who are voting No. Above all, I don’t think in the wider scheme of things, one nation state more or less – in an era of globalised capitalism – makes all that much difference to people’s lives.

For me, this is a chance to open up the structures of government and try to influence their shape in the future, and to bring government closer to those it is supposed to serve. Of course, these are precisely the sorts of issues that our supposedly wonderful civic debate has failed to address.