Then eight years ago she joined evening classes that didn't seem like any others she had heard of. They were held in a couple of old shops with posters on the walls bearing quotes from Paulo Freire, the radical Brazilian educator, saying things like, "Transformation is only valid if it is carried out with the people, not for them."
The classes were part of the Adult Learning Project, set up by Freirean-inspired community education workers in 1979. The Brazilian, who died last month, was best known for his revolutionary work with illiterate adults in Latin America and Africa, but he inspired educators all over the world. He believed conventional teaching helped keep the poor down by tailoring learning to suit the needs and cultural values of the ruling lite - and that learners could unshackle themselves by turning this process on its head.
In his programmes students set their own learning agenda and discovered how to read and write while discussing key social issues that affected their lives. "Education is freedom," was his motto.
Rona, a part-time school cleaner and playtime supervisor in the west of Edinburgh, had left school without any qualifications. A mother of three and married to a car mechanic, she started in two groups, one examining family medicine and another looking at teenagers and parents. Then, instead of following a set course, she joined 50 others in a six-month investigation into social and cultural issues affecting Scottish people.
The students were sent out with cameras to take snapshots of community life in their neighbourhood, Gorgie-Dalry, a series of streets lined with yellow-grey sandstone tenements, overlooked by the Heart of Midlothian Football Club stadium. They snapped drinkers in pubs, typists in an office, patients waiting to see the doctor, anti-poll tax marches led by pipers. And they met in focus groups to discuss the meaning of the pictures and
the issues raised by people they had met, so that they could decide what they wanted the content of the project's curriculum to be. It was a way of standing back and examining their lives.
"The most fundamental issue," says Stan Reeves, one of the community education workers who has been involved with the project since it began, "was the lack of a political voice, the feeling you're not part of something, that your identity is continually denied and your culture diminished. We have voted Labour consistently, and for 18 years we got Thatcherism."
Collectively they devised a programme of studies to reassert their own culture and set up learning groups on subjects as diverse as local roots, democracy, land ownership, cultures in Scotland, social documentary photography, creative writing, and traditional music and dance.
"For me an issue was I didnae ken ma ain history," Rona says. "You can ask anyone when wis the Battle o' Hastings, but they widnae ken when wis Bannockburn."
She joined the project's history group and studied a mixture of Scottish history, women's history, "a wee bit o' international on the French and American revolutions and the great ideas", and the story of local buildings and families - from the lairds to the railways and the boom years at the turn of the century when the tenements were built for industrial workers.
But this wasn't a conventional history class. It was run on Freirean lines, though they went further and decided to have no tutor. The class of 20 was split into three. Each group identified areas of study, and the learners used libraries, books, and old newspapers to prepare a presentation for the whole class. ("I was terrified," says one member, Norma Price.) They even wrote their own history of their neighbourhood in the form of guides and began to run weekly tours of different routes of interest.
Through her studies Rona discovered that Scots was not a dialect of English at all but a Germanic language that had developed in parallel to English. "It made me so angry, " she says, slipping between the two languages. "At school if I said I had forgot ma peenie I got lines: 'I must call an apron an apron'. Nobody told me it was all right tae speak the way I spoke. Tae discover that wis a powerful thing."
Finding a voice and discovering your identity is a theme that permeates the whole project. In the evening at Tynecastle High, a former trades school, the classrooms are echoing to the sound of tin-whistler s learning how to decorate their tunes ("do the fiddly bits"). Along the corridor a dozen fiddlers are practising a Shetland jig. Even here they are not told what to do, but urged to "explore" the grace-notes to give it ornamentation.
"It's the bowing that gives it its characteristics, " explains Stan Reeves. "What is it about a culture that makes it different? It's not just the language; we sound different."
In the old shop by the railway bridge the democracy class is in session. Rights and responsibilitie s is the topic. Gorgie-Dalry has changed since the project began, in the year that Mrs Thatcher came to power. Indeed, the social changes that have swept Britain in the past three decades have left their mark. The poor families who lived in the two-room tenement flats have moved out to housing schemes on the edge of the city. First-time buyers have moved in, many of them single or couples without children who pack up and leave for bigger things after a couple of years. As a result, some locals feel the sense of community has been lost.
"If we put on a festival, instead of people putting something in tae it they just go up tae the park and enjoy the event," Rona says.
There are more practical living problems, too. Vernon Galloway, the tutor,explains that people no longer take turns cleaning the communal stairways or put their rubbish out at the right time. "This was a traditional working-class area," he says. "Life in the tenements was built around clear moral codes about living together. We did a survey and found that things have changed a lot; people didn't know what the rules were anymore."
The group is trying to come up with a new model of collective life to counter the ethos of individualism, though that is exactly what the learning project seems to be doing already. Witness the way ceilidhs, which used to be a preserve for the middle classes on special occasions such as weddings, are now commonplace in Gorgie-Dalry and draw in the young (in Doc Martens and heavy-metal T-shirts) and old alike.
Witness also the way they transformed the format of Scotland's Civic Assembly when they were invited to find a way to ensure the voices of ordinary folk would be heard. The "democracy learners" initiated a morning session in which the participants were broken up into groups, each with a facilitator, to enter into a dialogue on the issues they wanted to raise with the political speakers. This meant those who were too nervous to speak from the main floor could ensure their points were made.
Rona used to be one of them. Driven by nervous energy - she twists a piece of paper intensely as she speaks - she measures her growth in confidence by her ability to make speeches at public events. "Two years ago ma question wis picked oot at a community conference and I wis convinced I wis going tae have a heart attack. Now I still go red, but at least I know I'm not going to die," she laughs.
The Adult Learning Project has 500 registered members. Some of them have been going to classes for more than 14 years, and for them it has become as much a way of life as an education. Stan Reeves attributes the success to the Freirean style of learning.
"In the West we assume that people are a blank sheet of paper that we write upon. I can show you evening classes where after 10 weeks no one even knows each other's name. We assume the person is here as an individual and doesn't have any collective relationship in the room. They are isolated, and they leave in droves."
Freire himself lambasted what he called the "banking" system of learning in which teachers deposited information in their students, who were objects of the educational system, rather than authors of their own identity. In this country, people say teachers should never be political, but Freire believed they could never be otherwise. His ideas raise deep questions about the wisdom of the current fashion for prescibing curriculum content and didactic methods of learning from on high.
Rona Brown knows what it is to be liberated. She has seen the Freire posters on the wall in similar projects in Brittany, Ireland and South Africa, where she has been to share ideas on culture, history and democracy. And she understands what Freire meant when he said that when education works you can see happiness in the students' eyes, you can smell curiosity on their breath, and their desire to create is tangible.
"I think his ideas have made a tremendous difference," Rona says. "I wisnae used tae being listened to anywhere. To be shown that what ye know, what ye think, what you are saying is of value - I hadnae experienced that before. Ye went from thinking you were an empty barrel to realising you had a contribution tae make."