Sunday, October 03, 2010

People Who Are Just Like Me

I'm not sure of the exact date, but it was probably exactly 50 years ago today that I embarked upon what they call a "life changing experience".

At 24 years of age and with a notable lack of educational attainment, I took leave of absence from my job as a railway clerk to embark upon a two year politics and economics course at Ruskin College - whilst retaining my free passes and privilege tickets.

I had been active for nearly three years as secretary of the Easington Colliery Local Labour Party and had undertaken another voluntary role as secretary of the Peterlee and District Fabian Society.

It was the latter involvement that drew me into attending a Fabian Weekend School at Oxford at the end of March 1960. It was held at the College's section at Headington which was used mainly for first year students.

Hugh Dalton, Roy Jenkins and Tony Crosland were amongst the speakers, whilst Bill Rogers was running the show as the Fabian's General Secretary.

I had no idea what Ruskin College was about until someone else attending the week-end school who had recently graduated from St. John's College, Oxford said "you should come here, it is for people like you". That is people with an interest in politics who lacked formal qualifications. It was the first time I knew that politics could be an academic subject.

Later in the year I saw an advert for the Ruskin courses in "Tribune". I immediately applied for something-I-knew-not-what as I was unmarried and had no major commitments.

Entry was based upon filling in an application form, writing a couple of essays (one was to try for a scholarship), plus an interview and three references. My referees were Mannie Shinwell the Constituency MP, my Union Branch Secretary and a former teacher who had joined our Local Labour Party in search of a headship in Labour dominated County Durham.

I had little idea as to what a Diploma Course entailed having left school at 16 with four low "O" levels and failures in what seemed to be the most important topics of Maths and English Language. It just seemed to me to be great that for two years in my life I could read books and write essays on politics and economics. After all the reason I had joined the Labour Party was to qualify to write an essay on nationalisation in a contest run by Mannie Shinwell, where I had taken the second prize of £3.

The subject I took to the most at Ruskin was Political Theory which opened up the way to reading theorists including Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, John Stuart Mill (on whom I wrote my best essay) and Karl Marx.

The photo at the start of this item was taken by Ann my future wife after the final exams and just before we all left Ruskin. The four on the photo were all fellow students and friends. I am the one in glasses at the back. Next is Ian Pickard whom I first met at the interviews at Transport House. Ann and I have visited Ian and Beryl his wife earlier this year. Ian became a Senior Lecturer in Communications at Wakefield College. Second from the front is the late Karl Hedderwick who was best man when Ann and I married in our native County Durham. He was also a colleague of mine at Sheffield University Extramural Department and in his final years had lived just a few hundred years from Ann and myself in our home in Dronfield. The chap at the front is Doug Chewter who was the only student in our year to obtain a distinction in the Oxford University Diploma. We keep in touch indirectly via the comment box of someone else's web-site.

Ann at Christchurch, Oxford on her visit in the summer of 1962

When I moved on to Hull University as an undergraduate my studies were shaped by my experiences at Ruskin. I dropped economics where my theory tutors report said that I showed a distinct ability to think for myself but at a rather superficial level ! I added philosophy to my politics studies as political philosophy and ethics seemed to me to add to my interests in political theory. After graduation I became a tutor in Sheffield University Extramural Department teaching Trade Unionists (especially NUM) in day release classes and other adults in an environment akin to that which I had experienced at Ruskin and in the areas of politics and theory which had then appealed to me.

Ruskin was the key to what I was engaged in from turning up their 50 years ago and for the next 27 years until I went on to serve for 18 years as an MP. Even then the discussion of political ideas was still central to much that I did; whether in the Commons, Committee meetings or political gatherings. Even in retirement I organise political discussion meetings for what looks very much like classes of adult students who are also labour movement activists. The Ruskin experience of the early 1960s shaped my life and, thankfully is still shaping it.


jailhouselawyer said...

Thanks for this slice of your history Harry.

The Plump said...

This is just one of so many life stories radically altered through adult education. I wish that its importance was still recognised for what it is, even more for what it could be.

Harry Barnes said...

The Plump : We need to see how we can get the issue on Red Ed's agenda.

The Plump said...

Indeed we do. Many of the last Labour leadership were deeply indebted to adult education and look what they did to it. The new lot don't know what it is, maybe we will fare better!

Any ideas? Strategy?

Harry Barnes said...

The Plump : Following a meeting of our Dronfield Labour Party Discussion Group I discovered that amongst those sitting in a circle discussing politics over our pints were people who in the good old days had attended Newbattle Abbey, the Co-op College, Northern College, Coleg Harlech (2) and Ruskin (2). Another who had studied under Ralph Miliband at the LSE had also been a Lecturer in Industrial Day Release Classes at the Sheffield Extramural Department as had the two of us who had been to Ruskin. The person who chair's our discussion meetings was an adult student on an access course I ran before she went to Sheffield University and another attends who has the same background. Two other former adult students of mine from classes for Trade Unionists also attend. So a potential 12 of us have had direct experience of these forms of adult education. So we should be able to come up with something.

This is one of the items which emerged earlier out of our discussion group -

I realise that we have the basis here for doing much more. We have a meeting on Sunday of "How Red Is Ed?" and I will raise the issue. I will contact you afterwards on what might be done.

Harry Barnes said...

The Plump : As soon as I typed in the above comment, this arrived -

I hope to attend. Can you make it?

The Plump said...

I would have loved to have gone but it is the day after my partner goes into hospital for an operation - I have to be on caring duty. Let me know what goes on. The independent angle is interesting.

Look forward to hearing more. I take it you have seen this:

Harry Barnes said...

The Plump : Best wishes to your partner. I have signed the petition and will push it. Thank you for the plug on your blog.

On top of those I mentioned earlier there are four others with adult education backgrounds who are on my mailing list for the discussion meetings. One went to Coleg Harlech, one lectures at the Northern College, one taught on our Trade Union Courses and her husband ran such courses at Doncaster Tech (which I also taught upon). So there are at least 16 of us that have such backgrounds.

One option is to get you across to address one of our meetings. Another is to set up a half day school on the issue with your involvement. We also need to press whoever Ed Miliband appoints who has responsibilities in the area. I can also seek to involve our own Labour MP Natascha Engel who chairs the Commons' Back Bench Business Committee.

The Plump said...

I would be happy to come over Harry and get involved in a half-day school. I think getting the MP involved is essential as we were without political goodwill.

There is a task awaiting us though. Advocacy must not be an exercise in nostalgia but a vision of where adult education can and must go in the future. We need a reinvention rather than a reconstitution.

I am doing more academic writing and less blogging at the moment and was thinking about the future of the blog, but what I might do is draft a wholly personal manifesto for adult education renewal and post it as a starting point for debate. Watch this space!

Harry Barnes said...

The Plump : I now find that "Post 16 Educator" are based in Sheffield! Whilst a dozen signed the petition just a short time after me. I appreciate that in politics you move on from where you are at to what is feasible (even if radical). Some of us may need to establish just where we are now, for half the 16 I mentioned are in their 70s !

The Plump said...

That's great. I can play the restless young radical being a callow youth of 58 :-)