Journey Through the Looking Glass

Journey Through the Looking Glass

Journey through the looking glass


Journey through the looking glass: some reflections on crossing the community/higher education divide

Cheryl Hunt, University of Sheffield

A traveller’s tale

A part-time student who works in community education (CE) in Derbyshire recently greeted me with:

‘The new cuts have been announced and the CECs are going now’. A few days before, I had taken a telephone call from a local councillor anticipating this announcement. He had said, ‘I know you can’t do anything about it but you do know what’s been going on here. Can you tell people about what we tried to do?’.

What had ‘been going on’ was a unique attempt by Derbyshire County Council (DCC) to implement a policy which combined the two key strands of CE, through local communities and through schools. The policy had evolved from a massive five-year, county-wide, consultation exercise and brought into being thirty-seven Community Education Councils (CECs), each comprising between thirty to fifty representatives of local communities whose responsibility it was to administer a substantial budget and all the CE arrangements for their area. Over one hundred new professional posts were also established, the majority for school-based Community Education Tutors (CTs). The policy was specifically intended ‘to put Derbyshire into the forefront of community education development nationally’.[1] Implementation began with the appointment of more than eighty CTs in late 1987/early 1988.

Soon afterwards, the Education [No.2] Reform Act 1988 (the ERA) firmly signalled the new influence on both educational practice and the operation of local government of a very different set of values from those which had given rise to Derbyshire’s thinking about CE at the beginning of the decade. By 1991, all the CT posts had been disestablished, to be followed a year later by those of the CEC Co-ordinators; remaining CE staff have twice been re-organised; the county’s Education Department has been restructured; and the main architects of the CE policy - those who created the vision which never quite became reality - have long since moved on.

The CECs were the last remaining link with the original vision. If, as my councillor friend asked, I ‘tell people’ - you - a little of ‘what’s been going on’ in Derbyshire and how the vision seems to have been lost, what value will that have, and for whom? The question is open for debate but my own answer is the product of a personal journey which has taken much the same length of time as Derbyshire’s apparently ill-fated voyage into CE, and during which our travels became linked. Along the way I have metamorphosed from a community educator into an academic. This paper represents, in part, an attempt to come to terms with what that means for my own ‘sense of self’. Underpinning it is the question of who really benefits from the recording and analysis in an academic arena of the ways in which politicians and practitioners try to turn vision into policy and practice.

Through the looking glass

Metaphorically, my journey from community education to academe seems to have taken me, like Alice, through a looking glass into another world where priorities are different. Most notably, the written word tends to be more highly valued than the activity it describes and I have not found that entirely comfortable. However, from this side of the looking glass there appears to be a possibility of encapsulating the practices and processes of education in the community within a broader, theoretical context, and of reflecting this back into the ‘real’ world in a form which has the potential both to celebrate and to change practice. Or is that simply to try to justify my present position in a world I might not now inhabit had Derbyshire's vision of CE not temporarily dominated my own professional life?

In December 1986, when DCC published its CE Programme For Development (commonly known as ‘The Pink Book’), I had long been involved in CE in various guises and was then working part-time in a new Centre for Continuing Vocational Education at the University of Sheffield. Having prepared a successful bid to provide a staff development programme for the newly-appointed Derbyshire CTs, I was subsequently invited to co-ordinate it. The task felt daunting. In my personal notes, I wrote:

‘Panic!!! Just finished chairing the first meeting of the Advisory Group. They seem happy with the outline proposals and even offered congratulations on the up-to-date academic references! But I can’t believe I’m doing this! I've done some CE, I’ve even done a Masters course about CE - but all these people have donkey’s years of experience in doing and managing it. Do I know enough to be of any use to them? To even be credible???!’

Whatever their answer might be, I certainly learned a lot from the fifteen months of the programme! It culminated in a conference (at which Tim Brighouse was a key speaker) to examine the emerging implications for CE of the ERA. The introduction to the Conference Proceedings records:

‘... the programme has provided a learning experience for all of us. And perhaps that is as it should be: if education is indeed, as Archbishop Temple wrote before the 1944 Education Act came into being, about the difference between abilities that are actual and those that are potential, then, as educators recognise and actualise their own potential abilities, the greater the potential of the education system itself must become.’

In arguing that the education system must not lose sight of its fundamental duty to develop the individual as it struggles to come to terms with the market forces of modern society, Tim Brighouse reminded the conference of Temple’s vision and suggested that ‘the image of what ‘is’ and what ‘might be’ runs right through education’. That image gave rise to Derbyshire’s Pink Book. The commitment, enthusiasm - and good humour, of practitioners in Community Education in Derbyshire, as they respond to it, suggest that what ‘might be’ in the county will be well worth watching.[2]

Those who have been watching have now witnessed the virtual demise of CE in Derbyshire as it has fought a losing battle against the new political imperatives of the ERA and subsequent legislation. Because I experienced at first hand the heady excitement of the early days of attempting to translate policy into practice, I have felt a personal sense of loss as the jobs of many of the people whose ideas, enthusiasm, concerns and frustrations I briefly shared have been devalued or lost. Opportunities for practitioners and participants in CE in Derbyshire to recognise and develop their potential have diminished and my community educator’s heart grieves with them. Nevertheless, my head tells me that to write about these issues constitutes research which has already played a part in my own personal and career development as an academic. I have become a proper resident in the world of the written word.

I shall draw on it in the next section, making reference to a model which provides a useful tool for analysis of the rise and disappearance of ‘vision, values and optimism’, before returning in conclusion to the notion of the academic looking glass.

Research: reflecting a broader picture?

Hope and Timmel[3] use terms reminiscent of Brighouse’s commentary on Temple to specify what is needed for a vision of how things might be to stand a chance of becoming the reality of how things are. In their view, a project is ready for implementation only when certain conditions have been fulfilled: the ‘visionaries’ have been able to share what they see with others; values have been clarified and agreed; and goals made clear. Thereafter, ‘It is essential to stop from time to time to reflect ... checking on goals, roles and relationships’ (original emphasis). As Figure 1 illustrates, unless critical ‘doubt points’ are recognised, and appropriate action taken, time and the changing social context in which practice evolves may fashion a reality far removed from the original vision.

This is clearly the case with CE in Derbyshire now, despite the preliminary ‘sharing and clarifying’ processes having been undertaken in what seemed an exemplary manner. Consultation and discussion was widespread, detailed, and had a clear impact on the final policy document. However, with hindsight, three problems can be identified which never seem to have been properly recognised or resolved but which cast a long shadow across the vision. Two are endemic in CE itself. The first is a ‘confusion of tongues’ (as Hope and Timmel[4] point out in relation to values, assumptions are often made about the depth of agreement, and the same words frequently disguise different meanings). The second concerns the interactions in CE between the interests of politicians, professionals and local communities. The third is linked to the last point but stemmed specifically from financial decisions made by DCC, largely in response to new controls being exerted by central government.

There is not the space here to discuss these in detail but, as Figure 1 shows, perhaps the most crucial moment in turning vision into reality comes at the point of implementation when politicians, those who have sanctioned and agreed to finance a project, hand over to the professionals who are charged with making it happen. In a sense, this was recognised by the then Chairs of Derbyshire’s Education Committee and CE Working Party, who wrote in the Foreword to the Pink Book:

‘We do not claim that this is the definitive statement in community education. Better let it be seen as a blueprint for development which will be a basis for policy decisions by the Education Committee, and which will help the practitioners to put policy into practice’[5]

Unfortunately, this working relationship was never to recover from a decision to cut the proposed CE budget from £4.5m to £1.5m in the wake of the 1987 general election. The number of CE posts to be offered had to be drastically reduced, and the time-scale for implementation extended. It was a time to ask not ‘Is it working well?’ but ‘Can it work as originally envisaged?’. Given that over a hundred CTs were to have been appointed, together with thirty-seven CEC Co-ordinators, twenty District Officers and several Area and Assistant Education Officers, one solution might have been to reduce the number of appointments overall but to set up complete teams in selected areas, perhaps where small pilot projects had already been established and/or where schools understood and were keen to develop a CE dimension to their work.

However, DCC had long been controlled by the ‘old-style’ Labour Party which operated on paternalistic principles and preferred a county-wide approach, even where this seemed to take little account of local conditions and requirements: it was decided that the CE programme should go ahead in a limited form across the entire county, beginning with the appointment of around eighty CTs, many of whom would now have to serve more than one school (in some cases, a whole cluster). Other posts were to be phased in during the following year but, in the event, only twenty Co-ordinators were ever appointed and some other posts never materialised. The balance between the intended goals, professional roles, and relationships between local schools and communities as originally envisaged had been dramatically shifted - but remained largely unquestioned, and with no effective mechanism, short of a full-scale review, by which it could be altered after implementation had begun.

The Pink Book had offered a brave and welcoming new world of CE, but many of the CTs who had been attracted by it now found themselves not only in schools where Headteachers and staff were not always completely clear about, nor entirely supportive of, the Tutor's role, but also without the expected CE team structure outside the school to provide encouragement. The allusion to a ‘blueprint for development’ was more literal than they might have supposed: in reality, the Pink Book provided no more than a sketch map from which they were expected to construct the new world for themselves. Not surprisingly, many felt isolated and confused about the work they were expected to do and became angry and frustrated with DCC. The tensions which arose undoubtedly added weight to the final decision, when a county-wide review did take place, to disestablish the CTs’ posts after only three years in operation.

The review was precipitated by the approach of the vesting day of the local management of schools, as prescribed by the ERA, and DCC’s consequent decision to transfer the budget for the employment of CTs from schools to a central resource for CE. Schools were required to renegotiate the terms on which CTs would be based there, and the CECs were also asked to comment. Most CECs wanted CTs’ work to be more firmly based in the community, and to have greater control over it. Given the schools’ own preoccupation at that time with new patterns of management and curriculum responsibilities, the twin strands of Derbyshire’s CE policy, once regarded as its great strength, seemed entwined in such a way that the community strand might pull the other completely out of the school system. Before priorities could be tested, the county’s continuing financial problems had forced the Education Committee to cut the CE budget by £1,850,000. Disestablishment of the CT posts saved £1,062,000.

The vestiges of a CE service remain in Derbyshire, but outwardly it is barely distinguishable from the separate adult education and youth provision which the vision encapsulated by the Pink Book attempted to replace. CECs still exist in name but the membership is greatly reduced and disillusioned, they have no real direction, little left to administer, and the latest cuts have now removed the services of the clerks who represented the last formal link with DCC.

Is this an appropriate tale to tell you at a conference dedicated to ‘celebrating’ adult education? Drawing on the metaphors of journeying and reflection, I think it is. Derbyshire’s original vision of CE may have faded - but for a time it acted as a beacon which encouraged hundreds of practitioners and participants alike to set out on new educational pathways. Along the way many have discovered new images of ‘what might be’ - for themselves and for their communities. There is frustration and anger that some of the pathways now seem blocked, to be less well sign-posted - or to have become toll roads, but few would argue that the journey thus far has been without pleasure or personal gain.

My own journey brought me into contact with the images and processes of reflective practice. As a result, I worry less about my ‘credibility’ in terms of what I know. I am more concerned with how I know and what the effects are of what I do with that knowledge. Such concerns inform the choices I make about what I research and write, who it is ‘for’, and how I can make some return to those from whom it is derived. In both teaching and writing I am mindful of a student who said of her MEd course, ‘I need you to provide a context in which I can challenge - and validate - my work, my beliefs and my professional practices’. I now ‘justify’ being an academic in terms of providing a framework to reflect back to individuals and communities what already exists in a form in which it can be challenged, changed - or celebrated. I try to provide a suitable looking glass where, as T.S.Eliot suggested[6]:

... the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

Reproduced from 1995 Conference Proceedings, pp. 80-85  SCUTREA 1997

[1] Derbyshire County Council (1986) Community education in Derbyshire: a programme for development. DCC, December 1986; p. v

[2] Hunt, C. and Clarke, A. (1989) The Education Reform Act 1988 and Community Education (Conference Proceedings), Division of Continuing Education, University of Sheffield; p. iii

[3] Hope, A. and Timmel, S. (1988) Training for transformation: a handbook for community workers (Book 3), Zimbabwe, Mambo Press; pp. 71-74

[4] Hope, A. and Timmel, S. (1988). Training for transformation: a handbook for community workers (Book 3), Zimbabwe, Mambo Press; pp. 71-74

[5] Derbyshire County Council (1986) Community education in Derbyshire: a programme for development, DCC, December 1986; p. i

[6] Eliot, T.S. (1944) The four quartets. London, Faber