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'It was going to be a crap life'

Chris Bunting reports on a project that realises the academic potential of one-time criminals and addicts

Joe Baden describes himself as being from the "provisional wing of the widening-access movement". He is certainly not your average educationist.

He left school with little education from a comprehensive in the Old Kent Road, south London, where, he says, "most children wanted to be bank robbers".

"I think if people had been honest with the teachers they would have said they wanted to be villains or gangsters. There were a few occasions in which you had confused careers officers trying to find out what kind of qualifications you needed to get to become a 'blagger'."

Baden jokes about his background but after he left school at the age of 16 his life descended into chaos. His young adulthood, until the age of 30, was wasted on alcohol and drug addictions. He served time behind bars and in mental hospitals and he freely admits he came close to self-destruction.

Now, 13 years after he was last arrested, Baden is heading one of the most exciting widening access projects in British higher education. The Open Book project, based at Goldsmiths college, University of London, and working with Lewisham college, currently has 30 people taking degrees across London's universities and 30 more in further education preparing for degrees.

But the raw statistics do not do the scheme justice. What is extraordinary about Baden's project are the types of people it is getting into higher education. These are not people who have dropped a few GCSE grades along the way or high educational flyers whose parents didn't go to university, as are many of the success stories of other widening-access schemes. Many of Baden's people make the phrase "non-standard" seem woefully inadequate.

Take Anthony Hall. Two years ago, the 30-year-old from Wallsend in Newcastle was a career criminal. "I wasn't out to make a name for myself. I was just trying to make money. One day I would be taking petrol from garages. Another day, I would be robbing cars, things like that. But I was on the edge of heavier criminality. If things hadn't changed, I am sure I would be deep in it now. I would either be dead or doing a long sentence.

"I had always felt that I was living the wrong life. I had been in prison on remand three times and all it did was reinforce the fact that I didn't have a future. It was just going to be crap jobs - a crap life. I got no happiness from seeing other people crying from the things I had done," he says.

Then he walked into a probation office in east London. "I was really quite desperate. I told them I wanted out. I wanted to do something that would get me a new life. I got told I should do some forklift driving lessons."

On his way out he bumped into Baden, "He sat me down and for the first time I thought someone was actually talking to me. Joe picked up on what I was feeling and he seemed to think there was something more than forklift truck driving for me."

Two years on, after a six-week pre-access course and one-year access course at Greenwich community college, Hall embarked on a BSc in criminology and psychology at the University of East London this September.

Hall is quite typical of Open Book's intake. Instead of sitting and waiting for potential students to come to him, Baden has spent two years trawling drug and alcohol addiction groups, probation services and other seemingly unpromising feeder "schools" recruiting his people. They are a mixed group.

Many have endured alcoholism, drug addiction and childhood abuse. Some have criminal pasts, but all are, in Baden's words, "working-class people who had never dreamed that they could get into higher education."

"I'm sick of hearing about people who I grew up with, who had as much potential as anyone out there, being banged up or, in one particular case, overdosing and being chucked down a chute like a bit of rubbish," Baden says. "Even the organisations that are there to address working-class people's problems are actually complicit at times in limiting the things that we are able to do. It is sort of taken for granted that all we need are basic skills. I have no problem with basic skills, but why can't we also look at professions? Instead of going through a forklift driving course, why not study law or journalism?"

The fiercely loyal community of scholars on the "Open Book" project continues to expand, meeting three times a week for "drop-in" support meetings where participants can discuss their work and lives, and the project has designed its own pre-access course with Lewisham College aimed at helping students with the first steps back into education. The eight-week part-time course, running from the end of February, will attempt to confront many participants' fear of academic language, "Part of it is about getting people to realise that academic is just a different language that anybody can learn. We may be doing things like writing passages in Cockney rhyming slang and asking the tutors there whether they understand it. We will be asking them whether they feel ashamed that they can't understand it, which is often what people feel when they can't understand academic language.

"We might be giving people thesauruses to try and translate a passage from The Sun into as complicated language as possible and asking them to try and translate some Marxist stuff, that is not always known for its good prose, into more simple language," says Baden.

The eventual aim is to persuade more people from backgrounds like Hall's and Baden's that education, and specifically higher education, is for them, not just for other people. "I may fail my degree, I may pass my degree," Hall says, but the point is, without this project, I would never be here."

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