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Holly Bank - From the Outside

Ian Farrington

December 2007

Between 1988 and 1997, I was a minor cog in the Huddersfield Educational Adventure Experiment, or HEAVE as we didn't actually know it then.

On my appointment as a Senior Lecturer in Education at what was then Bedford College of Higher Education, the Course Leader of the In-Service Certificate in Education said rather nervously, 'of course, no-one will have told you, but it isn't actually our course…it's run from Huddersfield.' This turned out to be simultaneously true and not true.

My own Cert.Ed - I should stress that when I did it I was a graduate, but what Barry Williamson of sacred memory once pronounced the 'personalised number plate' entitled PGCE, hadn't then been invented - was done at Garnett College, a sort of semi-rural outpost of the University of London, and the Southern (and less radical) version of Yorkshire's own Sorbonne.

After a term or so, my Leader threw in the towel. He'd been involved with the not always entirely fulfilling role of teaching about FE and Adult Education in an institution wholly dedicated to Sport, Dance and Primary school teachers for some years, and after an interview, I found myself in his less than hugely powerful and prestigious post. The thing is, there was always something you were supposed to be doing other than what you actually were.

Quite aside from the relationship with Huddersfield to which the remainder of this piece is dedicated, one's parent institution was - and from what I hear, remains - curiously uninformed about what actually happened to people post-school, and by extension, what anyone who toiled in the relevant teacher-training field actually did. I had a pretty heavy travel expenses claim bounce once, because the finance department simply could not comprehend why I should be visiting hospitals, police stations, church halls and the like, sometimes in the evenings or at weekends. My patient explanation that the 'students' I taught had to be visited in their place of work, when they worked - however outlandish that might seem - fell on deaf ears, and I still treasure the comment of a senior colleague of mine (later, interestingly, a Professor) 'why can't these people teach in proper schools like everybody else !'

Apart from visits - a major part of one's week; my rough estimate is that over about ten years I saw some 800 people teach everything from Architecture to Zoology with lots of Business Studies and Flower Arranging in between, and, inevitably, the ubiquitous Plumbing; to do which I would now, presumably, have to learn Polish - one taught. Perhaps in the then prevailing Yorks. zeitgeist I should say 'facilitated learning'. One researched and wrote the odd article. One saw lots of, sometimes quite confused, students of all variations of intellectual attainment and qualification, profession, age, shapes, sizes, ethnic origins and personal attractiveness. One did one's best to take a fascinated, not to say appalled, interest in the internal politics not only of one's home college and its bi-annual re-organisation, but those of the fifty or so places that one's students toiled in. Then there was the Great Mother Herself.

I realise that this isn't really the most appropriate way of referring to Peter Frankland, but for some time, for me, he was Holly Bank. I can't recall exactly when we first met, but he seemed then - and still seems now - to epitomize a certain attitude to people and to their education, which whilst it wasn't always or inevitably in-tune with the Spirit of The Bank, had sufficient in common with its prevailing ethos for he and I to feel moderately comfortable within it.

I think Peter, Barry and I, and many of the other 'Sir Ted people', as one of my groups dubbed us, and indeed made a video - now sadly long-lost - about, shared a set of beliefs and values which, in the best practice of a hundred thousand OHTs, I offer as bullet points:

* People of any background who wished to teach their subject, pass on their skills (etc) - whatever they were - should be encouraged to improve in appropriate ways

* This, amongst other things, meant that they should be welcomed to a course which would support them in so doing

* That the various bureaucratic, institutional and other essentially administrative details be shuffled in the learner's favour and not allowed to prevent their advancement

* That a genuine liberal and ultimately quite radical (in the best sense) ethos was the only way of achieving this.

Of course, those principles were often sorely tested. As indeed, were the other sort of Principals. My role meant I had frequent conversations with senior staff, even on occasion folk as important as Chief Executives, as they were beginning to call themselves, and have illuminated on their parking spaces. Some of them were lovely, liberal, engaging and warm characters with only the finer aspects of education and staff development in the forefront of their finely-honed minds. Oh, come on; the cynic who said that the collective noun for Principals was 'lack', was surely not privy to the rich and enlightened chat I was engaged in. There was hardly a devious Machiavellian or materialistic thought in their handsome heads. OK, apart from the handful who went to prison for financial corruption, left suddenly mid-term after expensively re-decorating their offices, or were traced to the Golf course following mass college evacuation, when asbestos was discovered throughout the entire ceiling of the institution, or tried to blackmail me into failing a Cert.Ed student who did not reward them with due deference, who…I could go on. Actually, I will. I was telephoned one Friday morning - well, naturally it was a morning, have you ever tried to contact a Chief Executive on a Friday afternoon ? - by an indignant college VIP who accused me of 'poaching' his staff. Apparently, there was an in-service provision within his institution, but one lecturer had observed that his fellow professionals found it difficult to attend the course, often working in a room next to the one they usually taught in, without interruption on the lines of 'could you just'; 'it's only your Cert.Ed. Can you give it a miss this afternoon and take this group'; and, 'we're not saying that any promotion will depend on your performance on the course but…' So, wisely or not, he had opted to sign up to the more remote option of studying under my tender guidance. Yes, there was competition and fights over the hot bodies of one's Course Members. (Some of them, as one Huddersfield wise-acre noted, coarser than others). This, I am pleased to say, has changed in that the current situation where training has become compulsory for staff teaching in FE means more recruits without the necessity of having to persuade their managers to 'release' them for a day or an evening.

An element of the Holly Bank, or as again, some wit (oh hold my aching sides) designated the place 'Holly Bonk', was the Residential. I was once stopped in Tesco by an exceptionally toothsome young woman with a carrying voice who told me in some detail how much fun the sojourn amongst the dreaming spires of Huddersfield had been. I think I snapped a cucumber and squashed a fudge yoghurt whilst she outlined the broader educational elements that her short holiday away from professional and familial duties had offered. For some reason my wife was always against me going.

But it wasn't all fun. For many of the non-graduates - probably the majority on the course I ran - the experience of being in a necessarily close environment in which learning and teaching were the major elements talked about, lectured on, read, analyzed and generally in close focus was revelatory. Not having been to a university, this was their only real chance to be involved in their personal and professional development in such an intense way. One very nice chap of comparatively limited experience of the wider world - though an excellent craftsman in his field - approached me in some distress. He had not reckoned on having to go away to such a remote spot to complete his qualification. He had never spent a night away from home before and was distinctly awed by the whole prospect. I reassured him, praised the worth of the concrete idyll of the North, the excellence of the tutors and so on. It will be all right, I said.

With a certain inevitability, the bureaucracy of his college, mine or Huddersfield cocked up his place. He rang me from a call box - pre-mobile days - practically in tears. The Holly B. had no record of a residential place for him. He would have to go home or sleep on the moors. I firmly insisted that the relevant paper work had been forwarded, that he was entitled to have a modest cell like everyone else, and that he would benefit from the whole thing. He might even learn something. 'Insist,' I said, 'on a room.'

I learnt later that he had sort-of camped out in the office of the Head of School, rather in the style of the civil rights protesters, possibly singing 'I shall not be moved' and refusing food or drink till a bed was yielded up.

I bumped into him during the next academic year when strolling round his home institution in company of the Vice-Principal. 'This man,' he said, warmly indicating me,' changed my life in one weekend'. I was very glad he enjoyed it in the end, but I got very odd looks from the VP for several years afterwards.

Now that HB is no more, a dead campus, a member of the college invisible, lost, gone, never to return, a housing estate, one gathers now gracing the sacred place where so many had their intellects shaken, their firmly-held beliefs challenged, their teaching and learning re-organised, their lives changed, perhaps, I feel a certain sadness. I was never wholly relaxed about the restraints and opportunities offered by my home institution's somewhat vexed relationship with another engaged more fully in the business of Further Education Teacher Education, and there were times when I cursed the manic work-load and constant travelling that having several masters rewarded me with. Yet, I felt, and feel that co-operation between institutions or courses is always better than competition in the educational world. The curriculum model hammered out between colleagues at Huddersfield and the 'out stations' one of which I modestly led for a while, was radical and far-reaching in its implications. The concept of an Adult-Model of Learning was a solution to an apparently unsolvable problem: how best to facilitate the development of the extraordinarily heterogeneous collection of individuals who teach in Further, Higher and Adult Education.

Adult Learning and adults learning

The two parts of the aphorism are not, unfortunately, inevitably synonymous. Under guidance from the University of Huddersfield, centres of Further, Higher and Adult Education (FHA Ed) teacher training such as mine in Bedford were encouraged to develop a model of Andragogy or Adult Learning as the paradigm for course development on the Certificate in Education. Some of the widely diverse collection of folk who formed the student intake took to the concept with alacrity, some took longer to warm to the approach, and not a few rejected it entirely: 'just tell us what we need to know'.

In essence, apart from being evidently good educational practise, working with one's learners to set learning goals and ways of working, respecting each other's necessarily different strengths and aspiring to mutual enrichment and autonomy, the mind set was an attempt to solve a genuine educational problem inherent in FHA Ed. Academic experiences (or the lack of them) can and do embrace a huge range of styles and levels within the sector.

A 'delivery' approach in which all learners are treated to the same content and teaching/learning styles, assessed and examined by top-down criteria are, according to some then prevailing orthodoxies, both educationally and practically invalid. Police Training Officers and teachers of Geography may sit uneasily in the same classroom. Sometimes literally. I experienced this approach, hot-foot from the University of Sussex, where interdisciplinary seminars, pursuit of knowledge for its own sake and what I know now was a broadly enquiry-based adult model of learning (my tutor commented at the time: 'well, you have to use the library, we tell you bugger all') underpinned the whole ethos. The first formal lecture - the whole course was based on them, and examined accordingly - of my own Cert.Ed. demonstrated the snags of delivery to a mixed audience immediately. On one side of me sat a very attractive, (which is probably why I sat there) but educationally unsophisticated would-be teacher of hairdressing, on the other a guy with a PhD in Philosophy. One found the lecture almost incomprehensible, the other trivial and insulting. I was somewhere in the middle. I commented fairly freely to my personal tutor about this, and he agreed that the system was 'unsatisfactory', but 'what do you want us to do, build a separate college for everyone ?'

I have written elsewhere (Farrington 1996, Journal of FHE) about my experience of being both on the receiving and 'in-charge' of different curriculum models for the purpose of preparing teachers in FE. I will admit to a certain confusion - even hypocrisy - between heart and head in this matter. My intellectual belief is that practising what we preach, I.e. treat learners as adults able to appreciate the considerable benefits of negotiation, becoming self-sufficient learners who take responsibility for their own pursuit of knowledge and skills and so on, is essential…and yet…I enjoy 'lecturing'. Students often, all too often, feel more comfortable with top-down edicts, pre-determined structures and apparent coherence. Emotionally, if you like, there is a tendency for 'traditional teaching' - if indeed, that is what it is - to become the default mode. One might add, 'depends which tradition'. Socrates might argue about the benefits of small group discussion, for example.

Admitting the more honest and evidence-based reality that all knowledge is relative and that all 'truths' or selections from texts or experience are temporary is disconcerting for both teachers and taught.

This is especially true when previous academic and/or practical training clash markedly with what's on current offer. I am unable to distinguish a correlation between the academically well-qualified and those from a more vocational or practical past and their ability to progress towards more autonomous learning relevant to their particular subject discipline.

Modest enquiry and some recent personal experience tells me that Andragogy remains a minority pursuit in many educational institutions in both Further and Higher Education. Whilst some universities, for example, are pursuing small group teaching, critical thinking and the necessity of students becoming actively involved in the whole educational experience, many, citing financial and therefore staffing pressures, are reverting to the mass-lecture approach, comforting, and on paper at least, 'cost-effective.'

Adult learning in the richest and most radical sense is difficult, time-consuming and rather dangerous. Dangerous because there is a risk that one's students are looking -

like most of us - for reassurance. A model which implies there are no easy answers, or sometimes no answers at all, does not make for neatness or necessarily immediate happiness. This makes some people anxious, and course- planners and bureaucrats revert to a security zone of top-down, pre-planned outcomes which are so much easier to assess and evaluate both internally, and increasingly, externally.

To conclude as I started, I was part of an educational experiment in the late eighties and nineties, courtesy of the Holly Bank Think Tank.

I think I benefited from it. It would be dishonest of me to pretend that I found all the outcomes entirely positive. As I have indicated, the institution in which I worked was not especially sympathetic to the notion of Adult Learning and confused by concepts such as 'negotiation' amongst learners. As indeed were some of the learners. I was therefore in a fairly constant state of uncertainty and receiving very mixed messages about where I was going educationally or in terms of my career. Naively, perhaps, I had assumed that the messages about diagnosing your own learning needs and pursuing your own learning goals with help and support of others was central to all real education. I was to learn that institutions don't necessarily think like that. I would be happy to be proved wrong, but strongly suspect that hierarchical and more conveniently packaged courses with tightly monitored outcomes are currently in the ascendant.

Whilst freely admitting to some qualms about aspects of 'radical education' (I use the phrase in its sense of 'at the root, or fundamental,' rather than in any political context) to which I have been exposed to at various times, I cannot see how we can face the 21st century with any integrity unless our thinking embraces at least the certainty that all knowledge is provisional and subject to question and that learners have the fundamental right to be part of a continuing process and not passive receivers of established wisdom.