Priced out of the market after a lifetime devoted to adult education

31st October 2008 at 00:00

If you want to see an embodiment of lifelong learning, you need look no further than my mother-in-law. No, this is not the start of a dubious Les Dawson-style joke, but a simple statement of fact. You could say the same about my father-in-law too.

Both now 87 years old, Fred and Polina Williams have each had a long and continuing involvement with adult education, both as learners and teachers. And while their teaching careers drew to a close some years back, the learning has continued - until now.

But as for so many others - 1.5 million is the figure most quoted - their chosen field of learning is now under threat. Or rather their ability to participate in it is jeopardised by a huge leap in the fees they must pay.

More of that threat later, but what of their learning journeys? Fred left school aged 14 in the 1930s. His father was an Oldham tram driver, and at first Fred worked in manual jobs. But he wanted more than this, and it wasn't long before he realised that adult education might help him to get it. At 16, he signed up for evening classes in arithmetic, shorthand and typing.

During the war he served as a wireless operator in the RAF, when he added bookkeeping to the shorthand and typing at Pitman's College in London. After the war, he embarked on a career in business, with clerical jobs leading to positions in management.

Soon, though, he was back in the classroom, this time developing his interest in art and history. As is often the case, these leisure courses led to something more life changing. In his late forties, Fred decided to train as a teacher, studying for four years part time followed by two years full time at what is now St Mary's University College in Twickenham. This, he says, "changed my life completely", enabling him to have a 10- year career as a junior school teacher.

His interest in adult education didn't end there though. He began teaching history at GCSE and A-level in the evenings. When he retired from teaching children, the adult work continued, this time teaching on, and helping to organise, access courses.

For Polina, too, adult education gave her opportunities she would otherwise never have had. "It formed me and transformed me," she says. "Without adult education, I would have led a totally different and less fulfilling life."

Her early life and education couldn't have been more different from her husband's. While he was fixing the tops on bottles in the Oldham Tizer factory, she was winning the Schiller prize for literature in her Austrian grammar school. As a Jew in late 1930s Vienna, however, it was not to last. When Hitler arrived in March 1938 she was first segregated from her Aryan classmates, then excluded altogether. She tried to pick up the pieces of a shattered education in Palestine, but left the Hebrew University of Jerusalem after a year to fight against the Nazis. She joined the RAF and was posted to Cairo, which is where she met Fred.

In England, after the war, she too learnt shorthand and typing at Pitman's College, and took a job as a PA in a London University college. In the evenings, she started teaching German to adults. "I loved it from the first lesson," she says.

She also enrolled with the Open University, determined to get the degree that had twice been denied her. That took six years of part-time study, while the secretarial work and evening teaching continued. At the same time there was also the small matter of raising a family.

Later Polina studied part time for two years to gain a certificate of education in adult teaching. In her late fifties, she ran the languages department of an adult education institute. To keep her hand in as a student, she took a diploma in adult education. This led to more teaching - on the then 730 course for teachers in further and adult education.

Ten years on, and in her late sixties, Polina considered retirement. But, like Fred, it was merely a passing thought. She left her job only to start a new career working alongside Fred on two access-to-humanities courses.

Fred and Polina finally gave up teaching in their late seventies. Polina, though, couldn't quite break the habit, and continued with one class into her eighties. Today, both are still mentally agile, still keen to gain new knowledge, although the physical side of attending classes is becoming more difficult.

What they look forward to, however, is attending occasional residential courses at Madingley Hall, the home of Cambridge University's Institute of Continuing Education. Polina favours demanding literary studies such as Dante's Divine Comedy, while Fred opts for art, music or historical topics.

But back in the summer a letter arrived from the institute threatening big fee increases - up from around Pounds 200 to as much as Pounds 350. This was due, the letter said, to funding changes.

As you might guess from their "patchwork" careers, my in-laws are not well off, but neither are they so disadvantaged that they qualify for grants or bursaries. Thus, after a lifetime of involvement in adult education, they are now effectively priced out of the market.

One way of looking at this is to say it doesn't matter. They've had more than their share of adult learning. If they can't pay, they won't get. Another approach would be to take the phrase "lifelong learning" at face value, to view it as a measure of civilisation rather than just a sound bite. If this is your view, you may find yourself compelled to support the recently formed Campaigning Alliance for Lifelong Learning and demand that something should be done for Fred, Polina and the tens of thousands like them being squeezed out of classes they so much want to pursue.

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