Lessons from the coal face

23rd April 2004 at 01:00
End of term brings fresh insights into old problems. The heritage industry can offer a romanticised version of a genteel past - all elegant gardens and country-house gift shops - where no one apart from the servants seemed to have to work for a living.

At its best, though, it offers a window on the forces that have shaped the lives we live now. We spent a day at the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley - heritage culture with grit - learning that formal education had an ambivalent role in the emancipation of the spirit or the improvement of the material circumstances of working-class people in Victorian Britain.

A half-hour participating in a vivid reconstruction of a primary school class, complete with slate and pencil, rote learning and the cane for misbehaviour, provided a vivid reminder that schooling is about control, discipline, and, in this case, knowing your place.

There was something comforting about the structure, but little or no chance for creativity, individual expression or divergent thinking. Much the same thing could be said of work down the mine, where a moment's individual rashness could put the lives of hundreds at risk. Yet, there, the message was subtly different.

Children progressed from opening and closing doors to circulate air in the mine at the age of 12, to leading the horses drawing loaded coal, to working the seam. At each stage, there was a critical need to learn what worked, to read the different seams, how far to stand back from a collapsing wall of coal - all learned from more experienced workers.

The pit might have been a more conducive learning environment, but the work itself, or the dust you breathed day and night, killed you: few miners working in the Black Country survived past 40.

The fish and chip shop and the pub had their lessons, too. An hour in the slow-moving queue at the chippie led people to talk to one another as they passed the sweet shop, the baker's and the chemist's - as things in the window unlocked memories of childhood, or stories passed down from parents and grandparents. By the time we were fed we were hungry enough to appreciate the food, however narrow the choice.

No Coke or orange juice in the pub, but the first pint of mild I've seen in years. All this is excellent family learning, providing experiences that provoke conversations about the best way to learn, how far work shapes our lives and what makes life worth living.

Social class interacts differently with educational opportunity and wider life chances are different now than in Victorian Britain, but the ambivalent role of education in reinforcing social division, as well as offering emancipation for some individuals, is just as much a feature of working-class experience today.

This was illustrated vividly in an analysis by Sir David Watson for an Anglo-American seminar on widening participation at Bradford University. He showed how much had been done to address unequal access to higher education for women, for most minority ethnic communities and for people with disabilities.

Class, however, is intractable, despite the evidence that nine in ten working-class young people with two A-levels go on to university. The bulk don't stay that long, and working-class adults are least likely to return to learning later on.

Since parents are the first and most powerful educators of children, adults' experiences of education help shape their children's expectations.

Active stimulus does make a difference. Working-class adults do respond to effective initiatives that address their circumstances and aspirations, whether through union learning representatives, or employer training pilots, or in adult and family education.

As Tom Schuller, new head of education at the OECD notes in The Benefits of Learning, where family learning works well, trust levels improve to the mutual advantage of learners, their wider family networks and a wide range of institutions. Building that trust takes time and patience, and a willingness to support learning that speaks to participants' interests.

Without that patience and trust, we will continue to exclude many working-class people from the benefits learning can offer.

Alan Tuckett is director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education

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