Saturday, May 30, 2015

My Own Memories of Michael Barratt Brown

 Michael Barratt Brown taught adult evening classes and founded Northern College as an adult and community education residential college
Michael Barratt Brown died on the 7th May which was General Election Day. He was 97. The only obituary I have seen about him appeared here in yesterday's Guardian. It covers the general pattern of Michael's life and work - and does this well. I will, therefore, only concentrate on some of my personal memories of Michael and apologize for referring to myself just as much as I do to Michael.

I first came across his writings in the 1958 and 1959 editions of "Universities and Left Review".  I was particularly gripped by a series he wrote called "The Controllers". It wasn't until 1966 that I first remember meeting him; but it is possible that our paths crossed briefly during the 1958-59 period when I attended meetings in London of a body called the "International Society for Socialist Studies" (ISSS). This body was set up following an initiative by G.D.H. Cole. Michael later told me that he had also attended ISSS activities. Shortly afterwards I became an avid reader of the initial political writings in "New Left Review", when it was edited by Stuart Hall.  Michael was then part of its editorial board. Michael's contribution to its first publication in 1960 being an article entitled "Yugoslavia Revisited". The Guardian review spells out details of Michael's war-time experiences in Yugoslavia. This led Michael to maintain a continuing interest in its twists, developments and final break-up.

My first memory of meeting him was when I joined the Extramural Department at Sheffield University in 1966. The bulk of my teaching was with trade unionists who attended Industrial Day Release Classes. At that time the majority of these classes were attended by workers in the areas coal and steel industries. Although this pattern changed and expanded over time. Michael was the Director of Studies for these courses, working tellingly on their development. The general pattern of these classes was for them to run for three years - without placing the hurdles of exams or published assessments in the way of those attending. The adult students attended a day each week for a 24 week period each year, over a span of three years. The first year centred on the study of industrial relations and the development of student skills, the second year on economics and the final year on politics. Michael tended to centre on the teaching of economics. Whilst I normally concentrated on politics. This meant that I often had the privilege of following on from a class he had taught. I invariably inherited a class of seriously minded and skilled students. A normal day would run from 10 am to 4pm, with the tutor joining in with the students for the coffee and lunch breaks - the later often being in a local pub. For tutors and students all of this was essentially part of the learning process. Michael automatically used these social activities as part of the learning experience, without looking as if he was being seriously minded.

The nature of the impact of these classes is illustrated by an initial class I taught. As I was a novice I shared the teaching with an established tutor. Michael then taught this class economics in its second year. The students included Norman West, Terry Patchett, Ron Rigby and Jack Wake. Norman went on to become an MEP,  Terry an MP,  Ron became leader of the Barnsley Council and Jack was then secretary of the NUM branch at Cortonwood - a position he still held in 1984 during the miners' strike.

The Derbyshire Miners classes came to have an extra day's studies added to their second and third years. So there were occasions when Michael and I taught the same class on different days of the week. I was closely aware of the solid and serious nature of his work with them.

I am still regularly contacted by Bryan Robson a former Yorkshire Miner, who invariably sings Michael's praises. Bryan rang me today and I informed him of Michael's death. He was shattered by the news.  I feel that the impact of Michael upon Bryan's life is well illustrated by the quality of his personal library.

The Russell Committee on Adult Education was in operation between 1969-1973. In that time it held a session of its enquiry with the staff of our Extramural Department. This may have arisen from the evidence which Michael had previously submitted to the Committee. For a section of our time was taken up with Michael's major proposal. Namely, that an Adult Education College on the style of Ruskin College in Oxford should be established in the north of England. Michael's father had been a principal at Ruskin and I had attended as a student much later from 1960 to 1962. Along with my fellow students, I had no prior formal qualifications; but as with most others I went on to obtain an Oxford University Diploma which gave me access to a place at University. Michael wished to add to that model, by including regular short courses for communal use. The Russell Committee adopted these proposals and it led to the opening of the Northern College near Barnsley in 1978. Michael was appointed as its first Principal and he effectively built the model provisions he had in mind.

1975 saw the retirement of the head of the Sheffield Extramural Department; Maurice Bruce. The staff were solidly in favour of Michael being appointed to the vacant post. I was secretary of the Staff's Committee at the time and took a deputation to meet the appointment's Committee, which was chaired by the Vice-Chancellor. I felt like we were taking icons to the Czar. And it was as successful. The post was given to an outsider.

When Michael subsequently left to take over at the Northern College, I maintained links with him. I arranged for an annual week's short course to be held at the Northern College for student's who attended classes run at our Extramural Department. These classes provided a means by which students (without formal qualifications) could seek Mature Entry into Sheffield University or to other avenues of Higher Education. The full-time students at the Northern College helped out enormously. When we turned up for meals they insisted on mixing with us and making us part of their college life. Even for just a week, the psychological impact of this upon our rather unsure part-time students was considerable. A later survey showed that our evening class students who finally made it to Sheffield University, ended up on-average with better results than student's who entered via formal qualifications. I also filled in for a period at the Northern College when they were short of a Political Theory tutor.

Many of the organisational arrangements I made for our short courses at the Northern College were made via their Bursar. This job went eventually to Mo Mowlen. Until we both met up in the Commons in 1987 as newly elected MPs. Michael and his staff were clearly aware of Mo's potential.

I bumped into Michael once as I was travelling by rail to the Commons. He was always a technical expert and had once claimed that he could teach day release students how to use a slide rule in just five minutes. So I asked him what the best way was to learn how to use a computer. His reply was "have grandchildren". I discovered the truth of this recently when I was sat at my computer with Amy my seven year old granddaughter who said "No grandad. not like that - like this".

 It is almost five years since I last met Michael. I heard him speak at the funeral of his friend Ken Coates at Brimington Crematorium at Chesterfield. It was Michael at his most effective, making a speech of great impact. As always what he said was a combination of the heart and the mind. Except that he had even more thoughts, memories and concerns to draw from than ever.

There was much more to Michael's life than the bits I bumped into. His list of publications is impressive not just in quantity, but in quality. The Common's Library dug a list of these out for me in 1998. His perspective on "political economy" was telling and is worth revisiting given the problems labour movements now face across the world. He achieved impressive results in developing "Fair Trade" arrangements. For he always knew that practice and theory had to be related to each other.

Numbers of his works can be found here

Also see here.

Of relevance to the areas I cover above is his "Adult Education For Industrial Workers", published by the National Institute of Adult Education (England and Wales) and The Society of Industrial Tutors in 1969. 

Spokesman Books | Michael Barratt Brown
Michael Barratt Brown

Michael Barratt Brown

Our good comrade and friend, Michael, died in London on 7 May after several weeks in hospital following a fall at home. During his long and eventful life, he worked closely with the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation and the Institute for Workers’ Control, and was a regular contributor to The Spokesman journal. We shall miss him greatly.

Michael Barratt Brown wrote extensively throughout his life on economics, workers' control and politics. During his long career he served in a Quaker Ambulance Unit and worked for the United Nations and, subsequently, in documentary films, in workers' education, in industrial democracy, in socialist economics, in resisting nuclear warfare, in honest academic research, and in Fair Trade among co-operative organisations.



1 comment:

Unknown said...

What a lovely story which bought back some fond memories. I only visited Northern College once in my life in 1983 when as an unemployed engineer I represented my union (AUEW) on the “People March For Jobs” and stopped overnight at Northern College. What a remarkable place and what an eye opener for someone who’s formal education (at Beckfield Secondary Modern School, York) finished in 1953 with no qualifications or regrets on either side.

The students at Northern College who welcomed and fed us and shared their rooms with us overnight were working people just like the jobless marchers and wow how they and the teaching staff made us welcome and without any of the rituals, pomposity, elitism and arrogance associated with higher education and seats of learning in those days.

The idea that working people with no formal qualifications and from any background could become full time students with hardly any restriction on learning and/or career opportunities was for me mind-blowing and a game changer that refocused my life ever-after. Two years later I enrolled on a Political Science course at Leeds University and started a process of lifelong learning (well not really because at 45 my life was halfway over) that changed and enriched my life and that of my family in unimaginable ways.

And while on that fateful day in 1983 I cannot remember meeting the college Principal, Michael Barratt Brown, his legacy lives on via the many thousands of working people and trade unionist whose lives changed forever and for the better.

All thanks to the work of Michael Barratt Brown, Northern College and tutors like Harry Barnes and many others. Now that is a real legacy and one, I think, to be immensely proud of.