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Searchlight is trained on learning

Helena Kennedy QC, a passionate advocate for social justice, is now looking at boosting participation in education. Lucy Ward reports

Sitting for a portrait for these pages, Helena Kennedy QC gazes so intensely at the camera that The TES photographer asks her to turn her eyes from the lens.

She admits that the look has been known to freeze witnesses and judges. The expression also betrays the passion and intensity Kennedy is renowned for bringing to a portfolio of causes ranging from constitutional change to penal reform. In the past year a drive to help further education bring in the students other sectors cannot reach joined the list.

By adding the chair of the Further Education Funding Council's widening participation committee to her daunting public commitments, the barrister is plunging into an issue seen as central to FE's future.

The work of the Kennedy Committee, now just more than mid-way through its two-year inquiry, touches key questions - how to narrow the widening gap between those with education and training and those without, how to make lifelong learning - present buzzword of all political parties - a reality as Britain slips further down the international skills league tables, and how best to distribute limited funding.

The challenge is as great or greater, some would argue, than that faced by Sir Ron Dearing in his much higher profile review of 16 to 19 qualifications. With its publication deadline falling near the likely time of the next general election, the committee has a chance to help win greater prominence for the "Cinderella sector".

As chair, Kennedy will need all her famed reforming zeal to support the expectations piling on her diminutive shoulders from within the sector. Lewisham College principal Ruth Silver, whose college in England's worst unemployment blackspot was among those visited by committee members, talks of their "absolutely crucial task".

The barrister clearly needs no convincing. Her gaze on full beam, she describes "a real tranche under there whose needs are not being met - who just slip through the net or whose attempt at learning has in some way been stifled. There is a huge argument for change".

Kennedy has seen first-hand the work of colleges in widening participation and addressing failure. The experience has heartened her - "there are wonderful people doing wonderful things in this area and being incredibly creative". She has repeatedly witnessed "the Educating Rita phenomenon, of people feeling exhilarated by the adventure of learning".

But for every Rita, there have been men such as the electrician in his 30s who told her his skills had not kept abreast of change, but feared to return to college because "you can't teach an old dog new tricks".

The socially-deprived may be among those at the heart of the committee's remit, but, Kennedy believes, that definition has broadened to include such men who are left depressed and jobless early in their working lives. "We are finding there are whole groups, particularly of men at 30-plus, for whom the idea of learning new skills has never been rooted in their thinking."

Women, maintaining a contact with the world of education simply through meeting their children at the school gates, are less afraid of returning to learning, she has found. College outreach projects in primary schools have successfully lured mothers to basic skills classes. Here, the committee will spread the word on best practice.

For men, Kennedy admits, the challenge is greater. She favours taking learning to the learner, unease over places of learning could be overcome if classes were held in snooker halls and betting shops.

Faith in the life-changing power of education, offered in the right places, stems from the 45-year-old barrister's own experience. Though she and her younger sister went on to higher education, her two older sisters left school and went much later to university via FE college.

Kennedy's working-class Glasgow upbringing gave her a respect for learning. Her father, who worked as a "bundle-strangler" parcelling up newspapers, and mother, a housewife, had been forced to leave their grammar schools at 14 but were "big library-users" and believed in education as a means to self-improvement. Her mentor was a classics master at her big state secondary school who set himself apart by eschewing the usual form of referring to boys by surname only, preferring to prefix the name with "Friend" and thus known himself as "Friend Lavelle". He gave the young Kennedy a lifelong love for language and a faith in the "democratic power" of articulate argument. "For those of us from working-class backgrounds, it was the teacher that inspired us, took an interest in us and made learning exciting."

She herself seriously considered the idea of teaching, but the same mentor introduced her to the thrill of debating and the lure of a legal career proved too strong. Had she chosen otherwise, the profession would have been deprived of one of its most articulate and committed campaigners, whose causes have ranged from the treatment of women in the British judicial system - highlighted in her book Eve Was Framed - through penal reform to reform of the Bar itself.

Still a practising barrister, among her other roles she chairs Charter 88, the constitutional reform pressure group and is on the board of the New Statesman and Society. She chaired the further and higher education sub-committee of the National Committee of Education. She is close to New Labour's top echelons, one of the group of heavyweight supporters now emerging.

Kennedy, who is married with three children under 12, admits all her free time is spent on her family - a home life she keeps private, but makes no apologies for a range of public interests which "in a woman are seen as having fingers in too many pies but in a man would be admired as a broad portfolio". But she says that her concerns are bound by a "common thread of how to create a just society". "I take a holistic approach to these things. You can't talk about criminal justice in isolation from social justice. I am interested in how education and the failures in that area create so many problems which have enormous social and financial cost."

Alan Tuckett, who as director of the National Institute for Adult and Continuing Education has given copious evidence to the Kennedy Committee, identifies with the approach. "Wanting a written constitution to enshrine rights for people is the same argument as offering high-quality education for the many. Inclusiveness is the key."

Michael Austin, principal of Accrington and Rossendale College and a member of Kennedy's sub-committee on the National Commission, recalls a highly adept chair who "passionately cares about disadvantage and deprivation. She really understands the issues around poverty and disadvantage". For Ruth Silver she is "a dismantler of barriers".

But if no one doubts the passion behind the Kennedy stare, everyone waits to see how radical the committee's review will prove. One committee member praises her "amazing grasp of what goes on in the minds of the disadvantaged", but insists practical progress is too slow. The committee recently put out a call for unpublished research on retention - a process Kennedy insists is necessary to avoid "reinventing the wheel". The dissenter argues: "We have been meeting for a year and now we are asking where we should be going. Social justice is fine, but how about saying let's produce a 15-point plan and see how many we can knock off and how many we retain."

Michael Austin is convinced Kennedy will not be pressurised into pulling punches and expects "really quite a radical report". The committee's remit includes recommending changes to the funding mechanism, and Kennedy has said she will not be afraid to put the case for a larger cash pot if she judges it necessary.

David Eade, a committee member until his appointment to the Further Education Funding Council, insists the FEFC is "very keen on the Kennedy committee and willing to put its money where its mouth is" on funding recommendations.

Kennedy is unfazed by the challenge. "I believe in the possibility of change. People are particularly frightened of it now, in the nervous 1990s, because they do not know what the future will hold for them or their children. But I am always optimistic about the potential for making things better."

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