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by Dr Philip Stevens

Beware of stereotyping.

In the early 1990s my college established a new Access to Higher Education programme in Plymouth, where precious little adult learning existed. At the Open Evening we were astonished to see a queue of people stretching around the block. One of the interviewees, a heavily tattooed merchant seaman in his early 40s, spoke knowledgeably and with passion about 19th century Russian literature. His school memories were of bitter failure.

Hazel was learning to read and write at the Working Men’s College in Camden. The College diagnosed dyslexia (missed at school) and with sympathetic tutoring her improvement was so dramatic that she was able to write her own story, ‘From 2 to 2,000 Words’. You can read her story in my new book. Hazel spoke about her school with tears in her eyes.

Despite dramatic improvements in teaching in our state schools, school, for whatever reason, just doesn’t work for everyone. Most people in the UK don’t go to university and never will. The true figure for those who do remains stubbornly below 40%. Today many children are held back not by poor teaching but by poverty and disadvantage.

The Principal of an adult college outlined to me recently what she saw as a fundamental difference between schooling and ‘true education’ – and it was clear where her sympathies lay. Rita and Gerald examines some of the differences between schooling and adult learning that still persist. Over 70 students contributed an educational biography as part of the research. The results were clear – there is little correlation between achievement at school and intellectual ability.

As part of the research for the book I looked at the work of two adult providers at the heart of one of the most diverse and challenging communities in London: the Mary Ward Centre and the Working Men’s College. Both have put creativity at the heart of their adult curriculum and with tremendous success in terms of participation, retention rates and academic achievement. This visual approach to teaching and learning in Camden offers adult students, often with little English, a way into learning. Traditional text-based programmes often form a barrier. Innovations such as ‘teacher silence’, differentiated learning, and outreach work have led to students feeling safe and secure in their leaning environment.

Adults sign up to join ‘Rabble Choruses’ and to learn to make stained glass windows. Others for reasons of personal fulfilment, escape from poverty, release from mind-numbing employment, and recovery from dependency and addiction.

I leave the last words to one of the participants in the research for the book, not heavily tattooed or wearing exotic earrings but, like our merchant seaman, his school experience is best forgotten:

I am pleased to say that I will have an MSc in Forensic Psychology & Criminology conferred on me on 31 December 2013 – the highest academic award of my life. I feel privileged to have had a university education. Although I did it for myself, I also did it on behalf of all the other young people who were in my class at school who had the ability to do what I did; some would have achieved much more but sadly they did not have the opportunity.

Dr Philip Stevens was a firefighter before returning to education as a mature student in the 1970s. Since then he has had a long career in adult education, where over many years he gathered the stories of learning that form the backbone of this book. Read more and order Rita and Gerald: Adult learning in Britain today out now from Trentham Books@IOE Press.

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