Work camp entertainment in the 30s: concerts in Cornton Vale Farm Colony

The spread of work camp systems in the early twentieth century posed a number of challenges of organisation and management. Apart from any other consideration, large groups of bored young men in an enclosed space are a combustible mix, so the authorities went to some trouble to provide approved forms of leisure, from sports to film. I’ve written about the organisation of Christmas Day and boxing contests in Ministry of Labour camps, but the same problems also affected voluntary sector camps, such as the Church of Scotland’s farm colony at Cornton Vale.

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Bridge of Allan at around the time  Cornton Vale colony opened in 1907. Image taken from Flickr‘s The Commons

 The Kirk had two advantages in organising entertainments at Cornton Vale. First, it could call on its congregations not only to help finance events, but also to perform; and second, the neighbouring congregations included the affluent small spa town of Bridge of Allan. In March 1934, concerts at the colony featured local musicians plus Miss Ella Ewing, an elocutionist from St Ninian’s in Stirling, and Mr Andrew Wingate, a ‘humorist’ from Bridge of Allan, and the local Chalmers Church Choir, who led the audience in Auld Lang Syne and God Save the King.

Much the same programme featured in January 1935, suggesting that the Kirk knew who its reliable performers were. Following the death of George V, the programme was amended to include a performance of ‘The Flo’ers o’ the Forest’ by the church choir of Stirling’s Holy Rude, followed by a lament on the pipes.

The concerts were duly reported in the Stirling Journal and Advertiser, but the newspaper says nothing about how the young male inmates received them. Cornton Vale was relatively small following the demise of empire emigration; the 1932 census reported it as housing 24 inmates, two members of staff,  and four relatives of officials. But as far as I know, none of these have left much behind by way of memories and records. What did they make of performances by Presbyterian humorists and elocutionists?

 

Adult literacy and Shakespeare

I really enjoyed All Is True, Kenneth Branagh’s new film about the aging Shakespeare. It’s visually stunning and well-performed, and explores a range of contemporary concerns with age, gender, status, creativity, loss, and love, but does so without losing sight of seventeenth century values and hierarchies.

Rather to my surprise, the film also touches on adult literacy. Partly this is one of the film-makers’ ways of emphasising the subordinate position of women, as exemplified by his daughter Susanna’s frustrated ambition to become a poet. And partly it allows the film-makers to reveal something of the relationship between William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway, played by Branagh and Judi Dench.

Women in the early seventeenth century were rarely schooled, and the film makes much of the fact that Anne – married to the celebrated poet and playwright – is illiterate. Both Susanna and her mother point out that their society expected women to bear children, not read and write. Then towards the end of the film, as Shakespeare falls ill, Anne offers to him her signature as a gift. Her daughters, it transpired, have taught her to write and read.

As with do much Anne and William’s relationship, there is very little evidence to go on, leaving us free to speculate. It’s pretty unlikely that Anne was literate, but we cannot be sure. But the absence of evidence affords the film an opportunity to explore Anne’s personality while reminding us of 17th century views of women’s value. Literacy, Freire reminds us, is power.

Trump’s Workforce Policy Advisory Board could be a model – except that it is advising Trump

Trump’s creation of American Workforce Policy Advisory Board is being presented as a response to the competitive threat posed by what is sometimes called the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The rapid adoption of digital technologies is now being followed by AI and robotics, and like governments across the old industrial nations, the Trump administration has noticed that the workforce has different skills from those demanded in the new economy.

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The challenge is, as ever, figuring out how to develop the skills that seem to be needed. I say “seem to be” deliberately, as it isn’t at all clear what those skills might be. But again, that is precisely what the new Board is being asked to do: its remit is to propose “ways to encourage the private sector and educational institutions to combat the skills crisis by investing in and increasing demand-driven education, training, and retraining, including training through apprenticeships and work-based learning opportunities”.

The Board will report directly to the White House, through the President’s National Council for the American Worker. Its membership is impressive: as well as co-chairs Ivanka Trump, who is formally described as an adviser to the President, and Wilbur Ross, the US’ Secretary of Commerce, it includes a number of CEOs , a senior trade unionist, representatives of the community colleges and universities, and the director of the Milken Institute, an influential economic think tank.

Ivanka Trump of course represents a second, and possibly more sure, door to the Oval Office. Her public statement on the Board’s launch was revealing, emphasising as she did the goal of “inclusive growth” in which “all Americans can participate in the opportunities created by the booming economy”.

So in some ways, the Board is well-placed to deliver. Its focus is on the supply of skills rather than raising demand, which might require intervention in the running of those corporations that are so well represented among its members. Instead it is likely that the business-dominated Board will concentrate on changes to provision (including, interestingly, apprenticeships).

A supply side focus is of course hardly unique – it is difficult to think of a single government that makes demand-side inteeventions the core of its skills policy. But the US government appears to assume that increasing levels of employment are themselves a signal that it is the remaining jobless and new young workers who need to be fixed, and not the shape of the economy.

Further, most of the key levers of change – whether in provision or demand – do not lie with the federal government. The states are the key public actors, and many have already shown that they are happy to ignore this federal administration.

The bigger problem, though, is of course the nature of that administration. On past experience, both the Advisory Board and the National Council will witness a slew of resignations once they have started reporting, with neither the reports nor resignations having any visible effect on policy. Notoriously, this President’s attention shifts elsewhere. Investing in infrastructure and rejuvenating the old industrial regions formed an under-reported (on this side of the Atlantic at least) part of Trump’s campaign promise. I’d like to think that he might see the Advisory Board’s work as a way of delivering higher skills across the workforce, but I’m not betting on it.

 

Germany’s Volkshochschulen are celebrating their centenary – but who are they?

1919 was the first year of the Weimar Republic, and of course the year in which Germany concluded a peace deal with the Allies. It also witnessed the foundation of many Volkshochschulen, a term which literally translates as People’s High Schools (or universities) but is usually understood to mean adult education centres.

The VHS in Cologne

The VHS are widespread across Germany; the total number in 2017 stood at 895, but most of these will have several centres in their local area. The vast majority are part of the local government system, with the Gemeinde and Kreisen (urban councils and rural districts) playing the dominant role. Overall political responsibility for education, including adult education, lies constitutionally with the Land, with the federal government playing an important supporting part.

Adult basic education, including literacy courses and refugee integration programmes, are an important component of the typical VHS offer. Languages remain the largest programme area (Hamburg’s VHS even offers courses in Plattdeutsch, which I usually think of as a dialect, but some argue is a language). Beyond that the range would be very familiar in most Northern European countries, from local history or adult work skills through ICT to creative writing.

As elsewhere the majority of learners are women (around three-quarters nation-wide). Most fall within the 35-64 age group. My personal impression is that both patterns may have changed slightly since 2015, as the vast majority of the refugees taking integration courses are young men.

Annually the VHS are said to cost around 1.35 billion euros a year. Around 198,000 people are employed in the sector, 95% of whom are on part-time or casual contracts.

Figures from https://www.hr-inforadio.de/programm/das-thema/100-jahre-vhs-fuenf-dinge-die-sie-noch-nicht-wussten,volkshochschulen_fakten-100.html

How diverse social relationships help improve your life chances

Steven Johnson’s book on decision-making is a lively read, and full of good ideas for helping you decide things. What attracted my attention, though, was its relevance to the social capital debate.

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Most of us prefer to hang around with people who are much like ourselves. We like neighbourhoods full of people who are similar to ourselves, we get intimate with people like us, and we join clubs and interest groups of like-minded people. It also happens that we inevitably end up spending most time with people not just with shared interests, but also of similar ethnicities, faiths, socio-economic background, cultural assumptions, and life experiences.

This ‘principle of homophily’ is well known in the social capital literature, and it can indeed help make life easier and more pleasurable much of the time. But according to Johnson, it also makes our decision-making capacities more vulnerable. He believes that the greater the diversity of those involved, the better our decisions. This is because people with varying backgrounds and assumptions will challenge and question each other, rather than simply going with the flow.

So a wider range of participants from different backgrounds is not just a matter of fairness; it also leads us to make better decisions. This is consistent with social capital research which shows a number of advantages to heterogeneous networks: as in the well-known case of job opportunities, to take one example, they are better than tight networks of folk like us for exposing us to information and ideas that we might otherwise miss /or overlook.

I agree with most but not all of Johnson’s analysis of networks and decision-making. First, for some purposes it is best to have access to a tight networks of people like us. To give one example, if you need a loan to start your new business, family and close friends are more likely to help than people you don’t know so well. More controversially, some research shows that pupils perform better academically when taught by members of the same ethnic group or gender.

So we appear to need a balance of heterogeneity and homogeneity to provide a mix of different resources to see us through our lives. Mixing only with people like yourself is a sure fire way of limiting your options; mixing only with loose ties is to cut yourself off from dependable and secure relationships.

Second, Johnson doesn’t discuss the policy implications of his thinking (though he does have interesting things to say about fiction and decision-making). He doesn’t look at organised attempts to bring large numbers of different people together to deliberate on agreed solutions to shared problems, such as citizens’ juries or other moderated large scale debates.

When they work, as in some types of community planning, they are great; when they become shouty (eg the two sides of Brexit) they just make matters worse. In short, how can we best improve public decision-making capacity through organised diversity?

Adult learning as embarrassment: more adult learning in crime fiction

I’ve polished off another German crime novel, which I bought in the Oxfam shop in Bonn. It features a middle aged male detective, Adalbert Kluftinger, who is rather set in his ways, and lives in the picturesque but socially conservative southern region known as the Allgäu. And as in so many German Krimis, up pops adult education. Twice.

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The Allgäu town of Kempten, image licensed under Creative Commons

On the first occasion, Kluftinger heads to the local university for applied science to interview a witness, who happens to be lecturing at the time. After getting lost on the campus, Kluftinger walks through a door into the lecture hall, where everyone assumes that he is a pensioner who has come along out of interest. Far too embarrassed to explain otherwise, he waits until the lecture is over.

This episode assumes that the reader knows of the German practice of Seniorenstudium, under which for a small fee, older adults may attend courses as ‘Gasthörer‘, or ‘guest listeners’. In Kempten, as in my old haunt of Cologne, the fee is €100 (or up to €300 per semester depending on the number of courses taken), and the university doesn’t separate older adults from others who register (online) as Gasthörer. But in practice, most such associate students are older adults, and the scheme is a popular one.

The second occasion involves a dancing class. Frau Kluftinger, a dance lover, has enrolled herself and her husband for the course, which inevitably involves him in humiliation at the hands of the tutors. I’d like to think that most adult teachers don’t enjoy humiliating their weaker learners, and the novel turns the tutors – an ultra-camp German male and an Italian woman whose grasp of German grammar is weaker than mine – into parodies. it isn’t clear in the novel who the course provider is.

The novel is called Laienspiel, which I understand as roughly equivalent to ‘Amateur Dramatics’, and the plot involves wicked goings on around a community performance of Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell. It’s a novel with a lot of humour, and it exploits adult education in order to emphasise the awkwardness and discomfort Kluftinger feels with the unknown, uncertain, and unpredictable. And it’s another example of the way in which adult education serves so often in German krimis as an unremarkable backdrop to dramatic events.

I wonder, though, whether we have underestimated the importance of embarrassment in adult learning. Or rather, in deterring some people from taking a formal course, with the risk that others will judge you for needing to ‘return to school’, or that you will show yourself up in some way by making mistakes in front of people who seem more confident and competent than you. Perhaps this is one more reason why remote forms of learning, where no one sees you fail, attract some people ?

Rachel Whiteread’s sculpture is a great way of marking the Forestry Commission’s centenary – shame about the leaflet

As part of its centenary celebrations this year, the Forestry Commission has unveiled a sculpture by Rachel Whiteread in Dalby Forest. It’s a splendid piece of work, comprising a full-size cast of a Nissen Hut, which represents both a connection with the First World War, when Major Nissen first designed the eponymous hut, and with the work camp that operated on the site from 1933 to 1939.

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Whiteread’s hut sits deep in the Forest, three miles from the visitor centre, and it’s weathering in nicely. When we visited we combined the short pathway to the sculpture with a muddy walk along rutted tracks. It makes a nice addition to the rich walking tapestry of North Yorkshire, and it has rightly been celebrated on the BBC’s Countryfile.

Disappointingly, the accompanying information leaflet doesn’t match the standards of either the sculpture or the Forest, at least when it comes to the work camp, which it describes as offering “much-needed local employment and skills training”. In one short sentence, the leaflet glosses over the following:

  1. It wasn’t employment, and the trainees received unemployment benefit (after deductions to cover board and lodging);
  2. the Ministry of Labour was at pains to stress that its camps offered not skills training but an exposure to heavy manual labour;
  3. the men weren’t even local, but were recruited from high unemployment areas in Cleveland and South Yorkshire.

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Does this matter to anyone but the historian? I think so, because it misrepresents the fundamental purpose of the entire government work camp system. This was stated bluntly by John Passmore, director of training at the Ministry of Labour, to a reporter who was visiting Dalby – or Allerston as it was then known – while it was under construction, using trainees from the Bourne camp in Lincolnshire.

Passmore described the camp’s purpose as ‘reconditioning’ men who had gone soft through prolonged unemployment, so that they were physically capable of doing heavy work: “We understand that men who have had long periods of unemployment will be in poor condition physically, and it is our intention to recondition them. At first they will be placed on lighter types of work, which will be stiffened as the weeks pass. The heavier jobs will consist of road work in the forest” (Yorkshire News, 29 November 1933).

Plenty of people misrepresented the camps at the time. The Yorkshire News reporter sounds a right Pollyanna, writing “That they were happy was not to be doubted for a moment. The carefree singing and whistling of those who had already felt the benefit of this new job in a healthy atmosphere was indicative enough”. From the Marxist Left, Communists denounced the “slave camps” as echoes of Nazism.

Both were wrong, but the myths persist to this day. Still, don’t let it put you off visiting Dalby and hunting for Whiteread’s Nissen Hut. If a beautiful forest and a haunting sculpture aren’t enough for you, there’s also a wooden Gruffalo close by.