In April this year, adult learning body Niace invited me, along with others in the further education sector, to write my adult learning wish list for the new government. I turned to the inspiration of the educational visionary Michael Young. This year is the centenary of the birth of this remarkable social entrepreneur, who founded the National Extension College (NEC) and the Open College of the Arts, and who was a prime mover in establishing the Open University.
The day before the Open University's first lecture was broadcast on national television in 1972, Michael wrote in The Times of a "university without walls". More than 40 years later, there are still too many walls preventing adult learners from fulfilling their potential. They include the difficulty of accessing GCSE and A-level assessment for private candidates; 24-plus advanced learning loans (unlikely to be much of a draw for people already managing the financial responsibilities of adulthood); the lack of a stable credit accumulation and transfer framework for further education; a restrictive ELQ (equivalent or lower qualification) rule in higher education; and IGCSEs of uncertain status.
Of the many lessons I learned from Michael, the most important was to fight for what you believe in. Two years ago, the NEC was bequeathed a pound;19,000 legacy by Eileen Sellers. A valued and long-standing tutor of the college, Eileen was born in 1922 and went to school in Manchester. She graduated from the University of Sheffield in 1943 with a degree in French and Latin and went on to study for a diploma in education, qualifying as a teacher and working in schools throughout South Yorkshire until she retired in 1982. She also taught adult literacy in Sheffield.
Eileen was known at the NEC for her gift for instilling confidence in students whose previous experience of education had often been less than positive. It came as no surprise to us that she had requested that her legacy be used to support students who had to overcome disadvantage in order to study.
Partnering with the Refugee Council, Crisis and St Giles Trust, we used Eileen's legacy to set up a bursary scheme. For two years now it has been helping 28 clients of the three charities - refugees, the homeless and ex-offenders - to change their lives through learning.
So who are the 28 beneficiaries of Eileen's lifelong commitment to lifelong learning? Among them is an asylum seeker from the Ivory Coast - a lawyer in his own country who spoke little English when he arrived in the UK but who, with an IGCSE in English, aims to continue his studies with a course in counselling. He also hopes to practise law again one day.
Another is a serving prisoner who chose to enrol for a level 3 award in education and training to help him find sustainable employment on release.
A third is a client of Crisis. He completed all 11 units of the level 3 award in education and training in just nine months at the same time as shifting between night shelters in East London. He has gone on to enrol at his local FE college to study maths and English.
`A kick up the bum'
What we have learned from working with the charities is that flexible, tutor-supported provision is most successful when learners can support one another in small groups and are encouraged by someone who can give them "a kick up the bum" (to use the words of one of the participants). They tell us this is a role that could be filled by an ex-student whose circumstances are similar to their own and who knows what it takes to complete an open learning course.
Throughout the project, the NEC has had to confront a recurring question for our sector: how do we define success? It has been music to our ears to hear learners express their delight at working towards an accredited learning outcome. But all three groups of learners, for very different reasons, were living lives where much was uncertain when they started their courses.
Our students saw enormous value in having one area of their lives in which they could work towards something concrete, at a time when many of them did not feel ready for the structure and formality of a regular class. The benefits of trying something new and developing confidence in their ability to learn are harder to quantify but possibly even more valuable than qualifications.
At every stage of the project, we have been reminded that Michael and his collaborator Brian Jackson were, in Michael's words, "searching for education without institution, learning while earning, courses that people of all ages could take in their own time, at their own pace". It is an approach that is needed as much now as it was then.
Thanks to Eileen, a group of people who would not otherwise have been able to afford to study have set out on the road to building their confidence and self-esteem, gaining valuable qualifications along the way. They have started to knock down walls for themselves. That's the most fitting legacy to mark the centenary of the birth of Michael Young.
Ros Morpeth is chief executive of the National Extension College, a distance learning provider based in Cambridge. She was appointed OBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours earlier this year