'Education was a rumour - you'll think you'll never get in

December 12, 2003

Where can a former alcoholic with a criminal record get the chance to go to university? Chris Bunting reports on the provisional wing of the widening participation movement

Anthony Hall was born into a world in which education was a "rumour" and crime a reality. "My mum's side of the family were offenders," he says. "I wasn't at school a lot. When you are at home getting the **** beat out of you, it is difficult to get your head switched on to school.

"Education, to me, was like whispers. It was like a rumour: you know it is there, you know people are doing it but you don't think you will ever get in," recalls the 30-year-old from Wallsend in Newcastle.

It was no surprise to any of his teachers that he finished school at 15 without any qualifications and quickly got mired in low-level crime. "I wasn't out to make a name for myself. I was just trying to make money. One day I would be taking petrol from garages. Another day, I would be robbing cars, things like that. But I was on the edge of heavier criminality. If things hadn't changed, I am sure I would be deep in it now. I would either be dead or doing a long sentence.

"I had always felt that I was living the wrong life. I had been in prison on remand three times and all it did was reinforce the fact that I didn't have a future. It was just going to be crap jobs, a crap life. I got no happiness from seeing other people crying from the things I had done."

Then, two years ago, he walked into a probation office in East London. "I was really quite desperate. I told them I wanted out. I wanted to do something that would get me a new life. I got told I should do some forklift driving lessons." On his way out to his life as a forklift truck driver, he bumped into Joe Baden, a reformed alcoholic and ex-con himself who had just taken over a widening-participation project at Goldsmiths College, University of London. "He sat me down and for the first time I thought someone was actually talking to me. Joe picked up on what I was feeling and he seemed to think there was something more than forklift truck driving for me."

Two years on, after a six-week pre-access course and one-year access course at Greenwich Community College, Hall embarked on a BSc in criminology and psychology at the University of East London this September.

It is just one of dozens of extraordinary success stories that have begun to emerge from the Open Book widening-access project run by Baden. When he took over in 2001, the scheme, then known as Action Learning in the Community, had three people on its books. That has grown to 60 people in two years, with 30 students already in higher education.

Beside Hall, at a meeting of the project in London's Deptford Town Hall at the end of November, sat Jude Rolleston, a 42-year-old reformed alcoholic, who said the scheme had helped save his life. He started the first year of a European Studies degree at Goldsmiths this September.

"Unlike Anthony, I had an education but it was an education ruled by fear.

Both my parents were alcoholics and I was in care from an early age," says Rolleston, who was brought up outside Dublin. "Before I went to primary school, I used to have one-to-one tuition as a three-year-old with a nun.

She would smack me if I got things wrong. I don't want to go into details, but I was abused physically, mentally and sexually. When I left school, I had plenty of qualifications, but I didn't want any more education. I was fed up with it. I just wanted to drink and forget it."

Thirteen months ago, after an adult life trying to forget through alcohol, Rolleston found the Open Book project: "From the moment I met Joe Baden, I was struck by his passion for education. He was very open about his life experiences, which allowed me to be open."

Rolleston is now a regular at the drop-in sessions that are the heart of the Open Book project, where participants can discuss their academic work and receive emotional support as they take the first steps in an education environment that can be very alien. "It is a fellowship. It is a support network from people who can understand the kind of experiences we have had.

It isn't just the fact that we are all doing courses, but sometimes we are able just to talk our lives through. Today, I feel a part of something. Not so long ago, I felt apart from everything."

What marks out Baden's project is partly Baden himself. Participants refer repeatedly to his working-class background and experience of problems similar to their own as part of their reasons for trusting him. He is not a man theorising about widening participation, he has done it in a most dramatic way. He left school with little education just a few miles from Goldsmiths' front door. Having fought alcohol and drug problems and spent time in prison and a mental hospital, he embarked, aged 30, on the university access course that changed his life. He is fiercely determined to give other people from a similar background the same chance.

That has meant recruiting students from the kind of areas of society many in academia would regard as hopeless. Instead of sitting and waiting for potential students to come to him, Baden has spent two years trawling drug and alcohol addiction groups, probation services and other seemingly unpromising feeder "schools" recruiting his people. They are a mixed group.

Many have endured alcoholism, drug addiction and childhood abuse. Some have criminal pasts, but all are, in Baden's words, "working-class people who had never dreamed that they could get into higher education".

"We sort of see ourselves as the provisional wing of the widening-participation movement here. We don't wait for people to come and see us, we go and get them," Baden says. "I'm sick of hearing about people who I grew up with, who had as much potential as anyone out there, being banged up or, in one particular case, overdosing and being chucked down a chute like a bit of rubbish."

For Baden, people from backgrounds like his are not "rubbish", although they have been and still are being treated as such by some in the education system. "Widening participation is consistently being attacked. A lot of the time you get people defending what they do. We don't defend what we do.

It is colleges that should be defending what they do. They have been catering to such a small sector of society for so long. You get accused of social engineering, but what we are doing is confronting the social engineering that has been going on for 400 years," he says.

"Even the organisations that are there to address working-class people's problems are actually complicit at times in limiting the things that we are able to do. It is sort of taken for granted that all we need are basic skills. I have no problem with basic skills, but why can't we also look at professions? Instead of going through a forklift driving course, why not study law or journalism?" he says.

While the fiercely loyal community of scholars on the Open Book project continues to expand, Baden is working with Lewisham College and Goldsmiths'

Professional and Community Education department to create two taster courses specifically designed to help his students progress more smoothly into higher education. "Part of it is about getting people to realise that academic is just a different language that anybody can learn.

"We may be doing things like writing passages in Cockney rhyming slang and asking the tutors there whether they understand it. We will be asking them whether they feel ashamed that they can't understand it, which is often what people feel when they cannot understand academic language.

"We might be giving people thesauruses to try to translate a passage from The Sun into as complicated language as possible and asking them to try and translate some Marxist stuff, which is not always known for its good prose, into more simple language," Baden says.

Also in the pipeline are a foundation degree in theatre studies based at Goldsmiths and perhaps, although discussions are still at an early stage, a move to set up Open Book access groups inside prisons. In the long run, Baden hopes some of his graduates may be recruited to run Open Book schemes in other parts of the country. "If we roll out this scheme and we have this happening elsewhere, then the potential is unbelievable," he says.

In the meantime, Hall is "just loving it" at the University of East London.

"University is a precious gift, one that I thought I would never have," he says. "I may fail my degree, I may pass my degree, but the point is, without this project, I wouldn't be here."

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