Thursday, May 5, 2011

A Good Start

Derbyshire Miners' Day Release Class 1980-83 at Hurst House, Chesterfield.

The meeting at Chesterfield on May Day about Adult Education went well. It was based on the experiences of the Derbyshire Miners' Day Release Classes which had run from 1952 to 1994.

40 people attended the meeting, which fitted in well with the fine facilities in the Council Council Chamber of the North East Derbyshire District Council. John Halstead a former Lecturer on the Day-Release Courses started the ball rolling by telling us about Michael Barratt Brown who came to run the whole range of Trade Union Day Release Classes on behalf of the Sheffield University Extramural Department and then went on to become the first Principle of the Northern College which caters for adult students. John then read out a well-appreciated May Day Message from Michael who is now 93 years old.

To provide time for discussion in the best adult education tradition, the three speakers spoke only for ten minutes each. First, John Burrows outlined his own experiences in the Derbyshire Coalfield which led him to attend the Day Release Classes and become an official at Area level in the NUM. Today he is leader of the Labour Group on the Chesterfield Borough Council. Whilst he pointed to the significance for himself and many others of the courses, he pointed out that they could not now be reproduced due to the decline of coal and of similar industries. Neverless, he felt it was an educational approach that needed to be re-established and adapted to radically changed circumstances. Secondly, Bob Heath spoke. As a miner he had attended the courses in the late 1950s before moving into full-time adult education at Ruskin College, then eventually returning to teach on the Derbyshire Miners' Courses themselves and become their Director of Studies. In the study of subjects such as industrial relations, economics and politics; he stressed the significance of examining serious ideas and theories which challenged one's own preconceptions. He saw our whole lives as being shaped by powers and influences; so that an intelligent, lifelong and questioning concern for such matters was needed to advance democratic arrangements and give them substance. Finally, Toby Perkins spoke. He is the Labour MP for Chesterfield and a Shadow Education Minister. He stressed the importance to society of it expanding its educational avenues so that people developed the skills that are needed to handle the demands of the modern world. This being done, at its best, when adults continued to be part of the process.

A steady and ready flow of questions and contributions followed from the floor of the meeting. Half way through this process an opportunity was provide for four bodies who were present with literature stalls and/or displays to outline the ongoing work of their organisations in the field of modern day adult education. These were (1) Post-16 Educator, (2) the Chesterfield Workers' Education Association operating from Hurst House and (3) Chesterfield's University of the Third Age and (4) an initiative associated with the Northern College. On the latter, Sue Rolstone explained the objectives of the Rolstone Heathfield Education Fund to develop annual conferences and study weekends in the areas of trade unionism, politics and campaigning. Sue is the widow of Peter Heathfield, who was both Secretary of the Derbyshire NUM and then of the full NUM itself. He had always showed the keenest interest in the work of the Derbyshire Miner's Day Release Courses and as John Burrows had pointed out earlier, Peter was the person who had encouraged him to join its classes. (For an update on John see here).

Whilst no specific plan of campaign emerged from the meeting, it had drawn together people with a key interest in the form of adult education which had operated for more than four decades in the North Derbyshire Coalfield. We are now in a better position to network together given our shared interests. For how we next seek to deliver on this potential - watch this space. In the meantime, there is plenty to chew over in this think-piece.

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