Saturday 15 August 2015

Measuring joy

I'm writing this post on train home from Glasgow after attending the funeral of a much loved student and RMT tutor Andrew who tragically passed away two weeks ago at the age of 35.  I'm lucky enough to have this view from my window - Andrew worked on the trains and it feels right to travel in his footsteps, taking the long route from Clydebank to Doncaster that he himself would have followed on his many trips to study with us at Northern College.

On the long journey I was thinking about adult education and how we measure it.  I've been involved in a NIACE European-funded project, one aspect of which is to evidence the worth of adult learning in England. At every meeting we talk about measurement; the positive impact of lifelong learning on health, income, equality, and other outcomes is plain to see but always hard to quantify.  We try, but return, time after time, to the the stories.  They are stories of lives turned around by education, aspirations finally fulfilled, awakenings and new beginnings, joy and hope. Stories like that of our very own student Lee Hughes, winner of the Outstanding Individual Award at NIACE Adult Learners Week (you can read Lee's fantastic story, here).

Measure this stuff if you want to, but for now, and on this day, I just want the stories.  This story is about Andrew, and the joy of lifelong learning.

Andrew taught adults, many well into their later years. Although he was new to teaching he had the ability to quietly encourage his students; he shared his passion in a way that was infectious.  On the occasions I observed him, he was careful to give each learner a voice and to encourage respectful debate.  Despite the low-confidence of many of his students, there was lots of storytelling in his classes.  They were places of joy, fun and hope.

Little seems to be written about Trade Union education but it impacts massively on the lives of many blue-collar workers who study on-line, through services such at Union Learn, or visit education centres like the RMT's in Doncaster.  If we hear about unions it is in the context of strike action or via other negative publicity - yet the education provided for many employees across the country is transformational and empowering.  Courses on employment law, health and safety, mental health, cancer awareness, confidence building, equalities.  The kind of education that enables workers to ask important questions; to challenge accepted practices; to make their working environments places of inclusion.  The sort of education that can save lives and make the world a better place.

At Andrew's funeral service the wonderful humanist celebrant talked about measurement too, and its irrelevance in the grand scheme of things.  'Life is measured by the dash between the birth date and the passed away date - life is measured by how you lived it, not by the years.'  This was a powerful thing to say at the service one who had died so young - but we went on to hear tales of what Andrew had done with his own 'dash' - his political work, both here and internationally; his trade union activism; his own learning and his passion for sharing it with others. His father told me of his joy at coming to Northern College to gain his teaching qualifications and his love of the work and the reading; never complaining about the five hour journeys or the pressures of combining studies with full time work and family commitments.

During my time in Clydebank and my conversations there about Andrew, we returned many times to his love of learning - yet often we sneer at adult education and belittle it, as John Field wrote about so eloquently here.  In an FE sector where the language is now only of 'skills', 'employability', of being 'work-ready,' there seems little room for learning for the love of it.  Yet the desire to gain new knowledge is an innate quality, so much so that it infuses many of our daily activities and most popular TV programmes (Great British Bake Off, anyone?)  Country-wide, people are busy learning how to knit, to sew, play the guitar, make cakes, restore furniture, write poetry, take photographs, dance, understand post-humanism (ok, that may just be me).  They build learning communities on-line, creating digital pinboards and Facebook groups; they share pictures of their creations and forge connections which sustain and drive their learning further.  And for many, the springboard is a canny adult educator like Andrew who ignited the first fire, provided the initial signposts and instilled the confidence and self-belief required take the first steps.

You're unlikely to find the word 'joy' in the lesson plans of adult educators - but it's often present in their classes nevertheless. And no, you can't measure it -  but maybe we just need to forget the numbers, and actually start focusing on the dash between them.

For Andrew Elliott 1980-2015. RIP.


  1. That was a beautiful article. I'm Andrew's brother .. I'll be sure to share it with the family.

  2. Thanks for your kind words Steven - sorry I didn't get to meet you at Andrew's funeral and pass on my condolences in person. Thinking of you all x

  3. Thanks for your kind words Steven - sorry I didn't get to meet you at Andrew's funeral and pass on my condolences in person. Thinking of you all x