'The socialist republic of South Yorkshire'

8th October 2004 at 01:00
The northern college: 25 years of adult learning. ed. Ball and Hampton. NIACE. ISBN 1-86201-190-7, pound;21.95

Northern college may be relatively young but it is a significant and emblematic institution.

It opened in 1978, a year before Margaret Thatcher came to power. That it survived 18 years of a government wholly opposed to its philosophies makes a fascinating story, set amid industrial decline and seismic shifts in British society. And as we know, the turbulence did not stop in 1997.

All the contributors either worked at or had close professional relationships with Northern college. and include its three principals: Michael Barratt Brown, the founding father and educational philosopher; Bob Fryer, principal for 15 years of rampant Thatcherism, the miners' strikes, mass unemployment, and creation of the Further Education Funding Council; and Tony Jowitt, present principal, who steered it into the learning and skills era and continued growth. He writes: "We have had to dance more closely to our paymasters' tunes, but the core values - adult provision, residential provision, widening participation and education for activists - remain."

Northern college was the product of a social movement, grounded in the unions, local politics and "old" Labour. There was a strong political culture in the region: as Dick Taylor writes in an excellent chapter on the origins of the college, "not for nothing did it become known as 'the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire'."

The first inspection of the college in 1983 praised it but expressed concern over "unduly narrow insight into the subjects... restricted to the social concerns and beliefs attributed to students of working-class backgrounds."

The staff responded vigorously - they were starting with students who had no post-school experience of education.They deservedly prevailed. They were helping to define curriculum and support for a very specific group.

As Hampton and Ball report "throughout the 1980s there were typically more than 80 per cent of enrolments from social groups D and E, more than 15 per cent from group C." Three-quarters of recruits were over 39, almost half of whom had ended formal education as early as possible with no qualifications. This was, and is, effective and committed widening of participation.

The book includes good chapters on the ground-breaking long courses with a "common core". Short courses were equally innovative, putting students and their experience at the heart of learning. The courses were also free.

Other chapters describe the strong community links, the college's contribution to local black organisations, regeneration in coal and steel towns and the developments in trade union education.

The final chapter is by former tutor Professor John Field. He asks, does government have a policy for adult education? He points out the clear shift of responsibility from the state towards employers and individuals, but sees hope in the recognition of the importance of lifelong learning "for electoral as well as economic reasons".

But Northern college is a success story, a triumph of committed and purposeful further education. One looks forward to its next 25 years. Its tale is well told, and deserves the attention of all who are interested in adult education.

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