The charge of the Education Brigade

Anya Cook sits on University and College Union’s National Executive and Further Education Committee and she is Branch Secretary at Newcastle College where she is employed as Higher Education Mentor. Here she tells Transforming Lives why she asked UCU to support her motion to lobby for a Royal Commission into Education in England from Cradle to Grave.

I was shopping for a leaving gift for a colleague on my way home from work. It was late, I was tired and not paying attention to the lad on the checkout who was trying to convince me to complete one of those online questionnaires about my ‘experience’ so that I can be bombarded with marketing emails. “If it helps you to remember my name” he said, “just think, Byron Burgers”. Well, that did catch my attention and, off-guard I responded Lady Bracknell-esque with “A burger? You are named after one of the greatest poets this country has produced and you liken your name to a fast food chain?”

Byron hadn’t heard of his namesake and, he told me, he isn’t that keen on poetry.

Liking poetry is not the point and this is about more than a gap in knowledge. This is about a loss of cultural inheritance. We cannot know where we want to go if we do not know where we are starting from. Starting points are important.

Byron’s experience is very different to mine. I too am named after a writer, an historical novelist, Anya Seton. Words and stories have informed who I am. Language and history have been my education, they are my identity, they are how I ask questions, how I engage in the community, how I challenge inequality, how I advocate and negotiate, how I share my emotions and how I pay the rent.

The Nigerian writer Chiamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about the danger of the single story – how limited knowledge and narrow viewpoints lead to prejudice, to limiting options and ideas. She says how important it is for people to have multiple stories, to deepen understanding, to make better choices, to have richer lives – and as educators we can ensure this. Adichie says “to have multiple stories is to enter a kind of paradise”.

I am not asking for paradise. I would be happy with a level playing field and for fully-funded and free-to-access Nursery, School, Further, Community and Higher Education to be our starting point.

I think, education as a homogenous provision, has lost some of its way. When mass free education took off it was to fuel the fires of the Industrial Revolution with skilled workers and to prepare young men for the army – which is why classing by age was so important.

The Mills have gone. Industry has changed. Knowledge moves on so quickly. For science, computing, engineering graduates of today, in 10 years’ time much of what they have learned at university will be obsolete, irrelevant.

So is the value in education in accruing knowledge or in gaining skills or in learning values to apply them to life.

I have seen the very real difference Forest School makes – and I have seen these young people as adults, as full contributing members of society, with jobs and fulfilling relationships, and often mentoring other young people in their wake. This is non-formal education and it works.

In his 2012 paper Valuing The Impact of Adult Learning, Daniel Fujiwara asserts that elements in pedagogy outside of the formal learning itself, group work, opportunities for collaboration and socialising beyond the classroom give rise to the greatest benefits in students learning from each other and developing social relationships. This is informal education and it works.

This is divergent thinking as opposed to conformity in structures of assessment that many are so used to. In an increasingly divergent world with many new problems and issues, divergent thinking is what I am suggesting is needed to ensure creativity and new answers.

From my years of experience of working in education, I believe education is the best way for people to improve their lives. Access to education for all ages enables people to continue their learning journey, to build skills and confidence, to retrain for different careers, to have options and find answers and live fulfilling lives with hope. Fujiwara’s research argues that wellbeing is greatly increased by access to lifelong education which benefits individuals and is marked through improvements in health, better social relationships and increased chances of finding and retaining paid or voluntary employment; all of which benefit society in reducing costs to the state in terms of medical and social welfare whilst providing a skilled and trained workforce.

Funding of education including Further Education is vital. I have been working with young people and in the community since I was still doing my own A’ levels.  In 25 years, I have listened to the stories of learners and tried to support them as they work to overcome significant emotional and financial barriers.

As Jimmy Somerville says, “Enough is enough, is enough, is enough”.

It is time for further education to be given the funding it needs so that it can continue to do what it does so well … give choice to many that would be otherwise left behind.