Obituary - Dorothy Eagleson, 1923-2010

10th September 2010 at 01:00

When Dorothy Eagleson began working in educational guidance, adults wanting to improve their reading or writing were forced to sit in classes with teenage pupils. Today, most FE colleges offer adults-only access courses: the legacy of her decades of campaigning work.

Dorothy Eagleson was born in Belfast in July 1923, the only daughter of comfortably middle-class parents. Her father, in particular, valued education, and was a long-time supporter of the Workers' Educational Association, helping adults to find their way back into education.

His own daughter was sent to Richmond Lodge Grammar, followed by Belfast's Queen's University. She later went on to take a PhD. Following her father's example, Dr Eagleson began work as a youth-employment worker. The aim was to offer advice and direction to struggling school leavers.

Increasingly, however, it was not just teenagers who sought advice from the new employment officer. Adults began to come and see her, similarly looking for tips on increasing their job-related options. Most wanted help with literacy: they knew they needed to have better spelling or writing skills to find work, and wanted to know how to go about acquiring them.

Fairly quickly, Dr Eagleson realised that these adults were not being fairly served as add-ons to a teenage service: they needed their own, dedicated education advice.

And so, in 1967, she established the Educational Guidance Service for Adults (EGSA), an independent counselling unit. She did not advertise; nonetheless, her offices were busy immediately. Workers who had been made redundant came to see her, looking for retraining opportunities. Victims of Northern Ireland's Troubles were referred to EGSA as part of their rehabilitation process. Within three years, she was receiving funding from the Government.

Dr Eagleson was keen, however, that her organisation should never feel like a Government office. She deliberately avoided official-looking logos: she did not want her service to resemble a benefits office. Instead, she chose to work out of social welfare and community centres.

Colleges, however, were less welcoming: Dr Eagleson's only option was to direct her clients to classes filled with teenage students. So she began to liaise with colleges, proposing adult-only return-to-study courses. She also encouraged them to set up drop-in taster courses, allowing adults with little experience of different subjects and professions to work out which areas they wanted to pursue. Modern access courses, run by most further education colleges, are the direct descendents of these adult-only tasters.

Convincing college principals to change the curriculum necessitated a formidable exterior. She was a hard worker, and expected those around her to work hard, too. When, in 1975, she set up an adult-literacy hotline to accompany a BBC series, she persuaded a group of volunteers that they wanted to sacrifice their Sunday evenings to answer calls.

But beyond the formidable exterior lay a genuine warmth. She was aware that her clients were often embarrassed by their own illiteracy, and nervous about being exposed in some way. Admitting their long-held desire to be a teacher, a lawyer or an architect would take significant courage. Dr Eagleson, however, was immediately able to put them at their ease: she would engage them in conversation, emphasising the importance of confidentiality in her organisation.

She did not marry. Instead, work was her life. Even in leisure, she was working: she was a consummate networker, and trips to the theatre or concert hall invariably became opportunities to promote EGSA. In 1978, when the Government withdrew funding from her organisation, she supplemented her already time-consuming day job with campaigning and lobbying work.

And she served on the committees of a number of literacy organisations. In 1982, she helped to establish the National Association for Educational Guidance for Adults, working throughout the UK, and was appointed its first president.

She remained in the role until 1998, long after her retirement from EGSA in 1989. This was not a figurehead presidency: she organised conferences and events, and offered advice to nascent adult education organisations.

She also worked with Queen's University's women graduates' association, providing financial assistance for women struggling to balance university and family life.

Practising what she had spent her working life preaching, she also enrolled in several courses at the Queen's Institute of Lifelong Learning. Only on her annual trips to the continent - Italy or Greece - did she allow herself time away from the committee table or the classroom.

Dorothy Eagleson died in her sleep on August 3, aged 87.

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