AuthorTopic: When Education Escaped: Short–term Residential Education as ‘Transformation’  (Read 594 times)

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by Sharon Clancy

At the start of 2014, I began my research on the ShropshireAdult Education College (SAEC) after months waiting to start, combining my time between finishing off in my job of 6 years and contemplating, with a mix of excitement and trepidation, a brand new life as a researcher. In preparation, I had been reading about the College, a short-term residential establishment with an abundance of diverse and ground-breaking courses, and its charismatic Warden for 23 years, Sir George Trevelyan, who was a founding father of the New Age movement, winning the Right Livelihood Award in 1982. He remains important today for his work on ‘education for the spirit’ and his espousal of ‘a non-sectarian, holistic outlook, scientific as well as mystical, and a compassionate, global humanitarianism’ (Dawkins).

My initial research rapidly showed up the social and cultural complexities and the genuine educational challenge and innovation embodied in short-term residential adult education in the post-war period. The SAEC (1948 – 76) was one of some thirty such colleges in stately homes created between 1944 and 1950. It sat within the splendour of Attingham Hall and its surrounding parkland, built for the first Lord Berwick in 1785 and now in National Trust ownership.

Most of the colleges have since been closed, many in the 1970s, like the SAEC, and others followed in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Some remain, though the emphasis, for most, appears now to be on leisure courses, rather than the rich debate, the post-war moral and philosophical urgency typified by the courses in their earlier years. The SAEC, for instance, offered subjects such as the Human Situation and Problems of the Adolescent in Modern Society—as well as courses in Music, the creative Arts and Drama. Other courses encompassed organic farming and environmental issues, emerging issues in Sociology and Psychology, such as child development and, atypically, a burgeoning New Age/spiritual education curriculum.

Such colleges developed at a time when Local Education Authorities, in partnership with voluntary organizations such as the Workers Education Association and the Women’s Institute, Trusts and universities, were given particular powers, and the financial means, to establish imaginative responses to education for adults in every authority area, following on from the 1944 Education Act and the 1919 Report on Adult Education by the Ministry of Reconstruction.

Students at Attingham in the 1950s

 The perceived success of previous efforts at short-term residential education, through Army education, the Summer Schools which had become part of the University Extension Movement and the Danish Folk High School model, indicated ‘the scope for and value in short courses as a permanent part of adult education if a sufficiently wide range of subjects—practical as well as theoretical—is made available’ (Ministry of Education, 1947, p.35), with the recognition that the residential nature helps ‘create an atmosphere and engender and enthusiasm for learning that is possible in no other way’(Ibid., p.60).  The emphasis was on the short-term college experience as a space for personal and social transformation and enrichment.

 Students folk dancing, 1948

Two particular questions have arisen as I have read through archive materials and press cuttings, sifted photographs and scrapbook materials and interviewed former staff, students and tutors from the SAEC. The first is who were the students who benefited from this idiosyncratic and wide ranging education and the second is was its impact ‘transformational’ or life changing for them? 
It is certainly clear that the SAEC aspired to make available education to people from all backgrounds, irrespective of their prior experience of learning. Trevelyan expressed the purpose thus:
‘Attingham was a cultural centre for everybody, for all classes’ and that ‘No one need be deterred by the feeling that he or she is not a scholar. . . why shouldn’t we use our country houses. . . as cultural centres, not for the upper classes, but for all classes?’ (Sir George Trevelyan’s Personal Notes, year unknown).
The emphasis is decidedly on culture.

Trevelyan also outlines the importance of modern education working in a ‘manner fitting for our more or less classless society’ (Trevelyan, Adult Education and the Living Idea, year unknown, p.1), as a means for ‘living ideas to work down into our society, and adult education has here a special, and in some sense, a priestly, task’ (Ibid., p.3). So the purpose is one of stimulating debate, with distinct spiritual overtones, and of a small group cascading their learning out into wider society.

There is no doubt that Trevelyan believed passionately in education for ‘all comers’ (Trevelyan, ibid, p.1) and over the span of the College’s life, it is estimated that some 40,000 students crossed its threshold. However, examination of the Visitor’s books and the course attendees, where records exist, shows that demographically the students did not represent the spread of British society at the time but were broadly what is defined as ‘middle class’, with an emphasis on professionals such as teachers. Initially, many came from Shropshire or the West Midlands – true to the LEA’s aim of attracting local people – but the New Age-orientated courses, which grew in number from the mid ‘60s, drew people from all over the UK and even overseas.

Sir George (centre) with members of a young people’s course – 1960s

 None of this, however, invalidates the transformational experience for those who attended – and not primarily on the spiritual courses. One former student - who attended poetry and literature courses - said to me that it was an important break from ‘the ordinary workaday world’.... ‘the attraction was simply the refreshment of a complete change, of a complete break in a different environment, in a different kind of house and even a bygone age, and that was the great advantage’. (John Hassall, former student). John went on to comment on the importance, as a sixth former, of the social, relational, residential aspect of the courses – ‘you were rubbing up against people from all sorts of backgrounds and all parts of the country’.  This helped him in his decision to apply to university.

Jill Thomas, another former student, attended painting, Astronomy and public speaking courses, amongst others, and writes -  ‘it was a wonderful time, when I escaped for a brief while from looking after two children to leave my husband in charge and to be in the enthusiastic company of like minded people, returning home refreshed in spirit’. Others attributed their future choice of subject at university to the stimulus of a course at the SAEC; and some their career pathways. ‘It’s because of coming here [Attingham] so regularly that I worked in the Arts – no doubt about it’ (Sally Stote, former student).

Arguably, Attingham catered for the enquiring mind of all types. The optimism of the times, encapsulated in the 1944 Education Act, is reflected in the range and diversity of courses and the limited levels of bureaucracy and scrutiny, which created a genuine freedom to innovate, even to challenge, as Trevelyan did. This, in turn, appears to have resulted in deep, immersive and life-changing experiences for many of the students who attended, as the oral history material I have collected testifies. The space, and the residential element of the learning, were vital to the transformational nature of the experience. This was a brief time in history when education genuinely escaped.
Mark Twain — 'There are many humorous things in the world; among them, the white man's notion that he is less savage than the other savages.'


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