More than ping-pong

January 12, 2001

Scotland's first chair of community education knows how difficult the informal learning route can be - he left school without a single qualification. Ted Milburn talks to Olga Wojtas.

Ted Milburn, Scotland's first professor of community education and possibly holder of the first such chair in the United Kingdom, has an unusual CV. The first-class honours degree may not be a surprise, but the lack of O levels is.

"I failed my 11 plus and went to a secondary modern school," he says, admitting that he was a diffident child.

"I suspect school did their best with me, but I left at 15 with no qualifications whatsoever. I worked in the railway booking office, and my father thought it was tremendous that I'd got a job as a clerk and not down the pits."

As a teenager in Morpeth, he was a keen volunteer in his local Presbyterian church and, after he finished national service, the minister persuaded him to apply for a YMCA training course for youth workers in London.

The young Ted Milburn had found his vocation. He worked in Huddersfield for three years as the YMCA's director of youth work, and then moved to Brighton just as the mods and rockers were emerging.

"They were both very interesting groups. They had different philosophies of life, but I suppose both groups saw themselves as different from the mainstream of young people and established themselves into an interesting persona."

But Milburn insists they were much the same as other young people, saying:

"I think the mods and rockers phenomenon we saw on the beaches of Brighton was often a response to a media response to them: 'Let's have a rumble, because the press are here and they've got their cameras'".

There were "little skirmishes" in his youth club, he says, that he got used to defusing. Milburn is tall and well-built, and it is easy to imagine him towering over the combatants. But he stresses that was not his approach.

"Sometimes it's a little bit of a disadvantage to be tall. If there was a confrontation, I got them to sit down with me. A lot of it is using your personality, and trying to get alongside people both physically and emotionally, and finding things that distract them."

He may have overcome his childhood diffidence, but his manner is one of quiet persuasion rather than forcefulness.

"Good youth work starts where people are, their interests, their ideas," he says. "We ran residential weekends where they could talk about personal relationships, drug situations, jobs and the future."

In his 30s, he felt he was getting "a bit too old" to be a youth worker and applied to study sociology at Sussex University.

"There were so many people who knew so much more than me, I was scared stupid. There were plenty of things on paper that showed I'd failed."

But he loved his studies, consuming them avidly, and he confesses to "a little bit of crowbarring" to ensure his course included units that he found particularly interesting, such as the sociology of adolescence, and working with small groups.

It was not an easy time, with three years of belt-tightening once he gave up his full-time job. But his family was entirely supportive -although his son, alarmed to see his father writing yet another essay, asked: "Dad, do you have to do homework all your life?" He moved to Scotland after graduating, and his career then alternated between Strathclyde Regional Council, where he became assistant director of education in charge of community education, and Jordanhill College of Education. The college has now merged with Strathclyde University, which appointed him a professor earlier this year.

"I'm very grateful that the university considered me for this post, because I would have imagined (a new chair) would go to more conventional academic areas. In my opinion, it is a credit to the university that they see this as so important," he says.

Community education emerged from the voluntary sector, and was seen as something done by good-hearted people in their spare time. But Milburn believes Scotland has taken a lead over the past two decades in giving it a solid foundation to support people in deprived areas. He says Scotland has had a much better understanding of the value of informal education outside school.

"It's essential to meet people out of the nine-to-four, never-at-weekends, never-in-the-summer system, and it's essential to have people working in that situation who are not teachers," he says.

"I don't mean that nastily to teachers, but I believe there is a different skill required to engage with people in the community. You don't get a class coming to you, you go to people, and it's about building programmes that reinforce confidence, positive development and capability.

"It's about creating relevant learning opportunities. There can be great learning out of going away on camping weekends. How do I plan my cooking? Will I be able to get on with other people? It's learning out of the activity rather than the activity for its own sake."

It is also crucial to involve local people in planning and delivering community education, he warns.

"It's not somebody coming in and saying 'I'll do this for you, folks', but 'how can we do this, folks?' " A perennial problem is lack of resources. Community education is not a wealthy branch of local authority work, and research funding is minimal.

"There are pieces of research one would like to do, but often one can't find sponsors," Milburn says.

"It's important to gain further information into informal educational methods, the processes which help young people to gain in confidence and self-esteem, and can springboard them into other forms of educational development.

"I'd like to work more on the structures through which young people learn to become adults, and make decisions which are positive. But it tends to be disparaged by the educational hierarchy, with universities at the top and youth work seen as ping-pong."

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