Murderous learning – more reflections on adult education in crime fiction


Recently I’ve been enjoying a crime novel by an Irish writer, Tana French. The Trespasser is set in Dublin, and its central character is Antoinette Conway, a hard-boiled murder squad detective of mixed race. The novel is interesting on belonging, family, gender, low-level racism, and internal hierarchies in the police. And it also touches upon adult education.

Aislinn, the murder victim, is described as a serial attender of evening classes. The detectives draw up a list of all the classes she took with a view to checking out ‘all the other students or whatever they call them’, a lead they pursue by looking though her financial records for fee payments.

I’d wondered whether this meant that the murder turned on an evening class, which would have been mightily entertaining. But no; Antoinette describes the list of evening classes as ‘depressing as hell’:

Aislinn genuinely paid actual money for a class called Restyle You!, with the exclamation mark, also one for wine appreciation, and something called Busy Babes Boot Camp.

So the evening classes turn out to be a side-alley, something the reader wonders about but which provide nothing by way of leads. Definitely not a plot device, then.

But the evening classes are nevertheless important: they tell the reader something about Aislinn’s character. Her serial pursuit of adult learning reflects Aislinn’s underlying uncertainty about who she is; and they signal her interest in adopting a new social role, restyling herself in order to explore the mystery of her own father’s disappearance.

Needless to say, hard-boiled Antoinette doesn’t think much of this, and indeed she tends to despise Aislinn more generally for being so unsure of herself, and for allowing her vanished father to dominate her life.  From this the reader concludes that Antoinette has dealt with her own childhood losses differently, so that perhaps the role of hard-boiled detective is itself a defensive performance of some kind.

As I say, an interesting novel, not only because of how it deploys adult learning. And  Antoinette’s rather cynical and dismissive view of adult learning, of course, is consistent with her seemingly hard-boiled character. So here is another fine example to add to my accounts of adult education and crime fiction in Germany, neither of which involve detectives who are ‘hard-boiled’.

As for the Busy Babes Boot Camp, no way would I let that pass by without investigating further. It turns out there is a clutch of similarly named fitness classes for Busy Moms, Busy Women, Busy Ladies, and Busy Girls. Busy Babes, though, is French’s invention

Mine’s an espresso! Learning with the Popup College

I’m a fanatical coffee drinker, so it was inevitable that I’d get excited about adult education classes in Costa. The courses are the brainchild of PopUp College, founded in Cambridge in 2015 by Jason Elsom as a response to the collapse in publicly funded adult learning, and which now claims to be providing 240 courses in 55 locations across the country.

So far as I can tell, most of the courses are provided through public bodies, mainly colleges. PopUp’s website lists seven partner colleges or college groups. Local Costa stores provide the space; presumably the coffee chain, which is owned by Whitbread, benefits from favourable publicity. 

Courses aren’t cheap: ten sessions of holiday Spanish at the Greenwich branch of Costa will set you back £120, while you’ll pay £75 for Art History & Appreciation at the Altrincham branch. Compare this with the £80 for a local authority ten week Spanish course in Scarborough, or £94 for Art Appreciation with the WEA in Reading, and you’ll see that the prices are broadly comparable. Unlike the WEA or local government provision, there is no pressure for accreditation or assessment. 

The topics and prices suggest that the initiative is aimed at the traditional adult education market, albeit one that has embraced the ‘cappuccino culture’ that now permeates large parts of the urban middle class socio-cultural milieu. It is obvious that the PopUp concept will appeal less to those who find ‘cappuccino culture’ a bit posh and poncy, or who simply can’t afford the fees.

It is also geographically limited. Perhaps predictably, the vast majority of PopUp courses are in London, with smaller clusters elsewhere. At present there are none at all in Yorkshire, Scotland and Wales.

Will the PopUp concept endure, or is it a brief fad? I rather hope it lasts: it seems to me an imaginative attempt to keep part of the adult education system alive and well, and I will watch its development with interest. I’d love to know what others make of this


Teaching adults dancing- it’s murder!

I enjoy a good crime novel, or sometimes even quite a bad one. My most recent read was a novel called Ostseetod (Death on the Baltic) by Eva Almstädt, a popular writer who sets her stories in the North German port city of Lübeck. Some of you will already know that I enjoy spotting scenes that occur in an adult education context, and Ostseetod provides a great, if brief, example.


Lucie Warnke, a middle aged mother married to a furniture dealer, is a dancer by occupation. Because the family live in a small and remote town in Schleswig-Holstein, the opportunities for dancing are few and far between, so she makes a living from teaching local women and children. The passage is set in a morning class, with Lucie (‘for the hundred and fifty thousandth time) telling the women: ‘Chests out, tummies in, legs higher, ladies – higher!’.

The seven participants, we are told, are aged between their mid-20s and mid-60s, and are hoping to stay supple with a mix of dance and gymnastics. Privately, Lucie thinks the class is good but useless for the woman, and imagines herself telling them that they just need to eat less. ‘But this type of class was the bread under the butter that Lucie at present needed’, for not only does she need her own spending money, but her husband charges her rent for the dancing space.

I can’t go much further without spoiling the plot, though that might not matter much to people who don’t read German, as German and Austrian crime fiction – which can be absolutely excellent – is rarely translated; the only exception seems to be Nele Neuhaus. What is interesting here is what adult education does for the novel.

I’ve speculated previously about why adult education classes are such ideal sites for crime writers (read more here). In this brief scene, Almstädt tells us something about two characters: Lucie, with her best years of dancing (and life?) now behind her, and her more-or-less useless husband Florian, as well as the relationship between them. She also communicates something about the local community and its limitations.

Almstädt can assume that her readers will see nothing unusual about a woman earning a few euros by teaching a class in a spare room. Germany has a thriving public adult education sector, as well as a lively voluntary sector. But it is also very common to see opportunities for private educational activities. On a short walk home last night from the football, between the bus stop and my home, I spotted a firm offering yoga classes for busy professionals and a flyer for a series of comedy workshops.

Almstädt belongs to an association of women crime writers called Mörderische Schwestern, the German chapter of Sisters in Crime, which provides mentoring and support for less experienced authors.Now I think about it, Mörderische Schwestern provides a kind of adult education. It surely can’t be long until someone writes a murder story set in their ranks  – or perhaps they have already?

The growing private sector in adult learning

I spent a week in August stewarding at the local rugby club during Whitby Folk Week. The fact that it was the 50th Folk Week is interesting in its own right, reflecting the rise of a particularly tenacious and passionate sub-culture in the 50s, 60s and 70s, as well as its continuing and changing existence today. But as I was standing by the entrance I was struck by a couple of advertising cards, offering courses and coaching in musicianship, as well as a flyer for Newcastle University’s degree in folk and traditional music.

002I’ve been struck for some time by the steady growth of private sector adult learning. No one really knows how large it is, though an investigation in 2009 identified 12,300 private training providers in the UK operating above the VAT threshold. While there were a dozen or so very large providers, most private trainers and educators consisted of one or two people, many of whom made money because many of their costs were concealed (for example, by using home as an office). And many – like folk musicians – offer education and training as a by-product of their main activities.

In much of the UK, I suspect that participation in publicly provided adult learning is very much in the minority. We don’t know whether this is the case, as there is no up-to-date study of the private sector, but it seems a reasonable conclusion.

Recent deep cuts in budgets for public providers, from colleges to councils, have significantly reduced public provision. The very same cuts have increased the private sector workforce by making people redundant or retiring them early, and giving them an incentive to offer their own programmes.

At the same time demand for learning, whether for vocational or personal development, is still rising, and the background factors that generated the 1990s debate over lifelong learning have not gone away. So it is inevitable that private providers, as well as voluntary sector bodies, are stepping in.

I realise that many people won’t welcome this process, but in principle it seems fine to me – with provisos. There is nothing intrinsically positive about state provision of services in itself; on the contrary, a strong state sector is capable of drifting into monopolistic behaviour and box-ticking, where provision is shaped by the interests of providers and a need to perform compliance with bureaucratic demands.

But there are risks with the sort of creeping privatisation that we have seen for the last three decades in the UK, with no significant public debate or the least signs of any policy lead. For me, the first and most obvious is equity. Those who attract the attention of providers are bound to be those who are best resourced and most motivated. Those who aren’t immediately attracted, or are poorly resourced, are likely to find themselves bypassed or funneled into a residual ghetto of under-funded and over-regulated public provision.

Second, training markets are typically rather inefficient. This is partly because the returns to investment are usually long term and – at individual level – unpredictable. While we know that actively learning is likely to produce benefits, people’s ability to identify exactly which types of learning are most efficient at delivering those benefits may be very cloudy. Without some sort of support – what we usually call guidance and counselling – decoding the claims of providers is likely to be challenging, and investment decisions will often produce poor returns.

Third, private training provision is of very variable quality. I’ve chosen to illustrate this blog with a flyer for two musicians of impeccable competence, both of whom I admire greatly. But we know very well that the private sector in education and training has more than fifty shades of grey, with parts of it edging over into overt corruption and fraud, with providers issuing certificates for completion of courses that never took place.

Privatisation of large parts of adult learning seems to me to have gone past the point of no return. Its further growth appears to be unavoidable, and this means that some of the problems and issues need to be addressed. And it is hard to see how this can be achieved without a steering role for the state.

Meanwhile, if you are a lover of traditional music, I can heartily recommend any gig featuring Emily Askew and/or John Dipper.