Rural education comes in from the cold

15th November 2002 at 00:00
Landscapes of Learning: lifelong learning in rural communities

Edited by Fred Gray

National Institute of Adult Continuing Education pound;15.95

Rural issues have forced their way up the political agenda. The size of the first march organised by the Countryside Alliance in 1998, with an estimated 300,000 protestors, took many by surprise and had an immediate effect on the Government. The Rural White Paper in 2000 explicitly stated that government policies had to be "rural proofed" and, after the last election, the Department for the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs was born.

The reason is that the countryside is in crisis. The 1996 BSE outbreak, followed by the foot and mouth epidemic, affected not only agriculture but also service industries. These crises revealed the depth of the long-standing problems in rural communities: declining farm incomes, erratic job opportunities and a critical housing situation, all of which existed for a long time but had been hidden away.

Education is the main weapon in the Government's armoury against such long-term structural problems, yet a search through the Department for Education and Skills and DEFRA websites found little on education in rural settings. Indeed, the DfES "Strategy until 2006" mentions several times how education can help to regenerate our towns and cities, yet does not mention the similar potential for rural renewal.

This collection of essays is an attempt to break that silence with an excursion into the unknown area of rural continuing education. There's an in-depth exploration of the theoretical and historical background to rural lifelong learning. Most of the chapters argue that rural communities are changing rapidly in the face of social and economic forces beyond their control, and analyse how New Labour has responded (inadequately, is the consensus) to these changes. There is an interesting chapter on the historical development of rural adult education from the University Extension Movement of the 1860s through the rise of the village college to the decline of specifically rural learning in the 1960s.

In the second part of the book, a series of chapters explores innovative and fascinating case studies of recent education projects in the countryside. These vary from the creation of a new University in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, an oral history project in the Fens, to ICT projects in south-west England and in the Marches of Shropshire (a fascinating and successful scheme described here by Len Graham and John O'Donoghue). Although these case studies are diverse, they appear to share common themes. The postcode analysis of project funding does not work in a rural situation; the locality must provide the venue for learning and inform on the curriculum that is delivered. ICT is not a panacea for isolated communities.

Rural lifelong learning has remained at the margins of policy-makers'

thinking because of a lack of research and advocacy in this area. This book can make a major contribution to putting education in the countryside firmly on the policy-making and political agenda.

Colin Hynson is education officer with the Norfolk museums and archaeology service

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