Brilliant advocate for cause of adults

Naomi Sargant, one of the great post-war figures in FE, died this week. Alan Tuckett pays tribute

Naomi Sargant numbers among the most distinguished adult educators of the post-war era. She pursued her passion for learning to the very last moments of her life.

Naomi learned last week that her cancer was inoperable - that she was dying. Characteristically she set about making the best possible use of her time. She drew up a list of visitors to see and issues to sort out.

Hours before she passed away last weekend, she told one visitor, fresh in from New York: "The challenge is to bring the worlds of adult learning and vocational education much closer together, and to make them sexy." Not a bad agenda for FE Focus and not a bad description of an important theme in her life's work.

Naomi was an exceptional authority in so many arenas. First, as an academic, her groundbreaking work shaped much of the debate about adult participation for three decades. Second, as a broadcaster, she had an outstanding track record of innovative educational programming. Third - as someone who recognised very early how technology would break the boundaries between computing, broadcasting and telephony - she saw the potential for an electronic revolution in adult learning. And, fourth, as a public citizen, Naomi shaped the evolution of policy to challenge inequality of opportunity wherever she found it.

Born of a Czech mother and English father in 1933, she fled the Nazis as a child in 1938, travelling in a locked railway carriage across Europe. It had a profound influence, making her a passionate advocate for the rights of refugees, which she pursued to the end as vice-chair of the campaign group MediaWise Trust.

Educated at Friends School, Saffron Walden, Essex, and Bedford College, London university, where she took a BA (Hons) Sociology, Naomi soon moved to adult education.

Her early career was influenced by working closely with the great social entrepreneur, Michael Young. His eye for unmet need and her skills in market research led to her leading role in the National Consumer Council.

She then took that experience to the Open University, and championed the educational aspirations of the working class, women and other under-represented groups.

I met her first when she was pro vice-chancellor at the OU, at a Ruskin history workshop conference on women's history, just as the women's movement was flowering. She was passionate, brilliant, argumentative, engaging, and infuriating in turns - but always memorable.

In 1976, she was appointed to the Advisory Council for Adult and Continuing Education, established by the then education secretary Shirley Williams to address exactly the question Naomi highlighted in her final hours. How do you bring together strategies to strengthen learning throughout working life with liberal adult education's concerns with active citizenship, second-chance education, and cultural enrichment?

Naomi led the council's work on future trends, with the first major national detailed studies on adults' experiences of learning. With Richard Hoggart, she played a central role in shaping the council's final report, Continuing Education - from policies to practice.

Naomi went on lead the new Channel 4's educational work as one of its first senior commissioning editors. Her groundbreaking work led to education being included in the full range of the channel's programming - complementing broadcast programmes of great flair with off-air back up materials, helplines and networks.

Her success can be seen from the way these techniques have shaped the whole industry. We have memorable series on history, adult numeracy and consumer rights, programmes for people with more time than money, and programming for people with disabilities.

Her work in broadcasting led naturally to her concern with the potential of the new technologies. She advised successive national policy initiatives on e-learning, notably Dame Helena Kennedy's seminal work on widening participation in FE and Professor Bob Fryer's advisory group on continuing education and lifelong learning. Naomi's interventions changed the detail of successive broadcasting bills in adult learners' favour, most notably by securing a media literacy remit for Ofcom just two years ago.

While enjoying a close family life - married to the current broadcasting minister Lord McIntosh - she was active in local government, held office with the National Gas Consumer Council and played a leading role in the National Extension College.

She was also deputy chair of the University of East London and of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, and chaired Great Ormond Street's hospital trust, and the Open College of the Arts.

Naomi has also been a towering influence on the development of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education for the past two decades, leading its quantitative research, helping to create Adult Learners' Week and prodding, challenging, encouraging, in her writing, speaking and forensic committee skills. She led a life rich in ideas and relationships, dedicated to the public interest.

No one did more for adult learners in her time. She was exceptional, a polymath, and a dear friend.

Alan Tuckett is director of Niace, the adult education body

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