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.

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