The Pitmen Painters
Peter Ryley is an Adult Education Tutor at the Centre of Lifelong Learning at Hull University. In discussing Lee Hicke's play "The Pitmen Painters" about a group of Miners who develop their artistic talents via a Workers' Educational Class in the North East, he draws on a report by Madeleine Bunting in the Guardian.
Whilst praising her report, he adds this important consideration. It is worth quoting at length -
"There is one thing missing though. She has failed to spot the threat to the very instrument of the recognition and development of the miners' talent; a national, independent adult education service. This service was delivered by a number of diverse bodies, the WEA, University responsible bodies, local authorities, the residential colleges etc. It was able to exist without restrictions on who could participate, whether they had to study for a qualification or not, and gave tutors and students a degree of autonomy that would be unthinkable today. This is not to say that the system was perfect and that there was no room for reform, but changes over the last twenty years have led to the disappearance of much of its work and a severe restriction on its autonomy. One wonders whether an equivalent group to those miners could be supported today.
Adult education still exists, but the last two years have seen the shedding of no less than one million four hundred thousand funded places. The heavily criticised proposals on restricting funding for students who wish to take qualifications at an equivalent or lower level to one they hold already is having a devastating impact on an already diminished university adult education sector. Though successive governments have shied away from delivering the final coup de grace, death by a thousand cuts is in no way preferable.
Universal adult education was never simply a middle class indulgence, as some stereotyped it. It was, and remains, a source of community cohesion and individual achievement, a lifeline for vulnerable people and a route for social mobility. Something special is dying. It is an unnecessary act of cultural vandalism. The Pitmen Painters is a reminder of the value of what is being wilfully destroyed. I hope it can be saved, otherwise the idealism and energy of a new generation will be required to rebuild it from scratch."
Keeping The Flag Flying
I was also an Adult Education Tutor at Sheffield University from 1966 to 1987 and had the privilege of sharing in the tradition which Peter describes and which has since suffered from a thousand cuts. South Yorkshire and Derbyshire Miners formed the backbone of our classes. I only once ran a session on paintings, when a miner brought his work and discussed it with us. Our classes were in the area of political economy, although we then enjoyed the advantage of being able to roam wherever our intellectual interests took us.
I still try to keep the flag flying. On Friday, for instance, I am off to Wortley Hall to take a class of Norwegian Trade Unionist who are looking into Globalisation. There are no prizes for guessing my topic for discussion - "The Iraqi Trade Union Movement".
When the Labour Party commits itself to saving and building on this tradition, I will then know that we are back on course again.
Postscript From Peter - Sign Up To Save Adult Education