Adult Education and Social Justice with Mel Lenehan – Universal Learning with Saj Mohammad
Please Note: This transcript has been slightly edited to improve readability.
Saj Mohammad: In this series, I’ll be talking to professionals inside and outside education, as well as parents, carers, and learners themselves about their experiences of inclusive practice.
I’m on a mission to discover as much as possible about inclusion, because I’ve been a learning support practitioner for over six years and I’ve come to realise that many of the adjustments we make for students with additional needs could benefit all learners. For example, making things easy to read helps dyslexic students, while using clear language can benefit autistic learners. So, shouldn’t inclusive practice be part of our normal routine when planning teaching, learning, and assessment?
In an ideal world, I’d like educators to stop thinking about inclusive practices as another chore to be added to an ever-expanding workload. In actual fact, I believe that inclusive practice can ultimately make life easier by making learning more accessible for all of our students.
In this edition of Universal Learning, I’m talking to Mel Lenehan, Principal and CEO of Fircroft College of Adult Education in my hometown Birmingham. Fircroft is one of only two residential FE colleges left in the UK and Mel begins our conversation talking about its history. It was founded over a century ago thanks to the philanthropy of the Cadbury family, in particular George Cadbury along with his friend and colleague Tom Watson. Mel talks about how they were inspired by Danish folk high schools which advanced the idea of popular education not tied to exams in a residential setting.
Fircroft was founded in this spirit and remains as an enclave of rural living in what is now a very urbanised Birmingham. Mel describes the inclusive atmosphere of Fircroft where learners feel like they are part of a small community. For example, in normal times ie not during a pandemic, learners and teachers eat together. Mel also talks about how much of the learning at Fircroft is unplanned and results from chance meetings while doing things like getting a coffee for example.
She also talks powerfully of the experience of one student who said that they had never felt listened to or treated with such respect before. Indeed, Mel mentions how many of Fircroft’s learning community comes via referrals from third sector organisations and have often experienced hardships in their lives. She also says that learners who initially came for a 48 hour course have progressed and gone onto university.
We also talk about Mel’s background in adult education and her belief in how it can be transformational in the way that it allows people to realise their potential. Mel also discusses how inclusion is so closely woven into the history and culture of Fircroft by treating everyone as an individual. Fircroft also stays relevant to the changing needs of the community. For example, it now offers a course for survivors of modern slavery, inspired by a similar programme at Northern College. It has also gained College of Sanctuary status and offers a welcoming environment to refugees.
We round off our conversation looking at what it means to be a senior leader in a setting like Fircroft. We return to the theme of treating everyone as an individual and putting the learner first. Mel reminds other senior leaders that the numbers on a spreadsheet refer to real people and it’s worth stepping away from the PC to remind themselves of that fact.
Finally, Mel talks about how the social justice movements of today continue to inform and guide the work of Fircroft. It was the first college in the country to declare a climate change emergency and equity and social justice remain at the heart of its work in education.
Hopefully Elaine answers many of your queries about how to best support autistic children and young people. But if there’s anything else that you want to know more about, I am planning to answer questions from listeners about inclusion in an upcoming episode. So do feel free to get in touch with your questions via our website at UniversalLearning.education
So, this interview was recorded using Zoom and the quality is not always the best. However, you can read a transcript of this and every episode on our website UniversalLearning.education where you can also find links relating to each episode to help you discover how you can put inclusion into practice for all of your learners. I am also planning to answer questions from listeners about inclusion in an upcoming episode. So do feel free to get in touch with your questions via our website.
It’s clear that Mel is very proud of the work that Fircroft does and the transformative effect it has on the lives of its learners. I hope you enjoy listening to our conversation.
Mel Lenehan: Hi, I’m Mel Lenehan. I’m currently the principal and CEO of Fircroft College of Adult Education, which is based in the Midlands, in about two miles out of the center of Birmingham. We’re the only adult residential college that’s in the Midlands.
Saj: Residential colleges in adult education, are they quite thin on the ground or are there a few around the country?
Mel: We’re becoming thinner, I would say, as a result of mergers that took place, there’s now two of us that are operating as independent adult residential colleges, Fircroft College and Northern College based in Barnsley. We feel a bit like a very small part of what was once very flourishing and may be taken for granted part of the adult education landscape in England, and particularly quite known internationally as well.
Saj: Fircroft has been around for over a century. What were the origins of Fircroft as a college?
Mel: We’ve got a really interesting history, which I would say that. We were established 111 years ago now by George Cadbury Junior, who I’m sure everyone recognizes the name from the chocolate factory tradition and heritage. Actually, George and a very good colleague of his called Tom Watson were what I’ve always said are prolific adult educators really. They were very much involved in the adult education movement of the turn of the century.
Both George and his father, so the story goes, would cycle into the centre of Birmingham every Sunday morning come rain, wind, or snow to their factories, where the chocolate factories were then based, and where their workers lived. They would provide literacy classes for the workers of the Cadbury factories. George would be doing this from a very early age. It’s a very big tradition of the family.
Then, George was also very interested in agriculture, and the notion of co-operative agriculture. Around 1905, 1906, George and Tom Watson visited Denmark. They were very interested in particularly around how Denmark had transformed its agricultural economy really. They came across the Danish Folk High School. The Danish Folk High School is a model that exists today still and is now found across the world. There are 70 plus adult folk high schools in Denmark, and you’ll find 200 in Sweden, there are more in Norway, Finland, America. It’s a very growing movement.
George was really inspired by what he found in terms of how the Danish Folk High School is a residential college for adults basically. They were set up originally to bring rural workers, particularly within the agricultural field together to collectively solve the problems that were facing that in their industry really. It was to provide a space of collective learning and understanding. They are credited with having a massive impact on those successes and actually still really seen as a very integral part of the development of citizenship within Danish societies really, and what’s called popular education.
It’s education that isn’t tied to exams and curriculum and subject. Well, they were established by a Danish philosopher called Frederik Grundtvig, who called them schools for life. They were about this idea of being the best self-actualization and being the best kind of person you could possibly bem whether that was in your employment, but also who you were as an individual.
George was completely inspired by what he’s found, came back to Birmingham and set up Fircroft College based on those kinds of principles of collaborative learning, cooperation, living and working and eating together, and that shared communal learning experience, learning from each other, as well as from an expert. Those principles are still principles that we hold dear today, really.
Saj: Really, all of that is in Fircroft’s DNA, if you like, and it translates into what you’re doing today?
Mel: Absolutely. Yes.
Saj: As we’ve established, residential colleges are very thin on the ground, unfortunately, in the UK now. For people who’ve never visited one, how would you describe the atmosphere?
Mel: They have such a unique atmosphere really. I’ve been principal now for five years. Five and a half years ago, six years, when I went for my interview, I’d never been in a residential college. Although I’ve been in education for 25 plus years, that was my first experience. I would say they are very unique spaces that are unique for a number of reasons, actually.
If I just take Fircroft as an example, anyone who knows Birmingham will know the Bristol Road, which is the road that runs through Birmingham, but many of us probably sit hours and hours on trying to either get in or out of Birmingham. The college is literally just after a turning off the Bristol Road. You go from a very urban environment onto a driveway that opens out into actually what was George Cadbury’s old family house. It’s set in six acres of grounds, and is a beautiful arts and crafts building that was built in the turn of the century. It’s just a space of calmness, really. It’s literally physically stepping from the chaos of the urban environment and all that noise and traffic and busyness of people, obviously, pre-COVID, and you literally drive down the path, the driveway, into a space that is very different.
That’s how our learners describe the experience as well really. It’s moving out of the sometimes quite chaotic lifestyles and life situations into a space which is wholly about adults. It’s adult-only provision, it’s wholly about a learning community. From the minute that you walk into the college, there’s a vibe, basically, which is about adults living, working, and learning together.
It’s really interesting listening to how students articulate that for themselves, really. I remember when we were setting one day at dinner, one of the things that we do is– caveat, pre-COVID, is to eat together. At lunchtime staff and students, all come together. We have a really busy, hectic dining room, which is brilliant. We all spend some time talking to each other, eating together, sharing experiences, talking about life really and learning. I remember sitting down for dinner one day with a student who was a new young man who was obviously quite quiet, on his own. I sat down beside him and started to talk to him and said, “Oh, you’re new here. How’s it going? How are you finding it?” He was literally a bit like a rabbit in headlights really. The thing he said, which sticks with me to this day, is that everybody is so kind. That really made me stop in my tracks, really.
Again, it’s something that I think about over and over again, not least because what a wonderful thing to say about an organization that you’ve spent a few hours in but also how much that young man’s life experience have been up until that point to actually just being shown respect, being talked to, being listened to, being asked about your needs and your welfare, for that to be unusual, I think, really struck me actually. That’s something that is very much part of the residential experience really.
The other thing that’s really interesting about it is that this full separation that we have around non-formal, informal and formal education kind of gets chucked out the window in a residential environment because although lots of learning goes on in classrooms and we have lovely classrooms, actually, loads of learning goes on at the coffee machine, sitting in the common room, having a walk around the grounds, at lunch, dinner, in the library, talking to staff, talking, all that. It’s like a buzz of learning that goes on really. I think that’s not something that I had experienced up until that point really, until I’d gone into the residential college.
Saj: That’s interesting. I think if you look at how education has become more professionalised and homogenised and managerialised over the years, funding is linked to achieving on accredited qualifications and all this sort of stuff, what is it about Fircroft that stopped it sliding into that managerial mode that education is very much about teaching to tests and getting pieces of paper? How have you managed to keep that kind of generalist approach to education?
Mel: We do accreditation, we do exams, we do courses which are very qualification-spaced. I think it’s about the fact that because we were a very small community, we don’t treat individuals as numbers. When somebody comes to the college, they are treated as an individual really. We’re able to offer a mixture of accredited courses that go up to level three, Access to HE right to very, very, very short, intensive 48 hours. Just getting back into learning or do something for yourself.
Quite a few of our learners come to us – well, a lot of our learners come to us through referral agencies, so organizations that are working, sometimes in the community in the third sector, but very much at community level, very much working with people who are often making transitions in their lives. We work a lot with charities and organisations who support people with mental health issue, homelessness, drug and alcohol recovery, et cetera, et cetera. Often, it’s about that transition piece really.
I think we very much operate on a basis of you come to us at the point at which you are ready in that point of transition to engage in education. Actually, the first time that you come to us, you might not necessarily at that point. I think I would say for the probably majority of our learners, they don’t necessarily know what the endpoint or the end game is at that point, but this is the next steps for them really. We do very small steps along the way to keep in dialogue with our learners to see what is it that you want to achieve? What is it that you’d quite like to think about now? Then let’s start to think about what that might entail in the future, really.
For many of our students, that’s a process that takes some time, and actually, it’s a process about learning about the other students. I always say that one of the interesting things in the students talk about this all the time that when they arrive, they might be walking up for a stress management course or competence building course, or introduction to spelling, but actually, what probably makes a massive difference to them is seeing other people like them and more importantly, seeing other people like them achieve and do different things and have quite big ambitions.
All of a sudden you change perceptions about, “Okay, well, maybe I could do that as well. Maybe at some point, two or three, three years down the line, I could also be going to university.” I think that has a massive impact. That’s what students say all the time with me is, “I walked out to do a 40 hour, eight-hour course and two, three years later, I’m now going to go and do my degree.” That’s not something that they ever thought was in their ballpark really, or ever thought was open for people like them. I think that’s what makes quite a difference, really.
Saj: You mentioned before that you’ve worked in adult education 25 years, have you always worked in adult education or have you worked in other phases?
Mel: I started out, actually, working in higher education. When I was doing my post-graduate teaching qualification, I was working part-time as a sessional lecturer really in higher education. As part of my postgraduate certificate, I worked in a number of FE colleges as well across Nottingham, and did the whole plethora from 14, six-year-old excluded children. I often talk about my BTEC — What was the name of it? [NB: Mel is referring to a Public Services course].
Anyway, it was a bunch of 16-year-old boys on a Friday afternoon who wanted to either join the army, the police, or the fire brigade. I was tasked with then teaching them communication skills. They were one of my favourite classes, but one of my other favourites that I happened to come into contact with was adult evening classes. I used to teach A levels in an evening class and I found Access to HE. Then I fell in love with that whole kind of… the opportunity that that afforded individuals.
I came from a very philosophical practice position or positionality or the kind of Freirean pedagogy, very much coming from that, and I did a critical theory degree. That’s what interests me about teaching, but it wasn’t until I got to see actually adult’s Access to HE classes that I saw it happening in front of my eyes really. Then I was hooked.
Then I went on to talk part-time, like everyone had 15 different part-time contracts in the days when they were like five or six FE colleges in the city rather than one, mega one. Then I joined the WEA, which is the Workers’ Education Association. I worked with them as a tutor organiser when I first started. Then spent 17 years of WEA working in various different roles and until I came to Fircroft. Yes, absolutely, my life has really pretty much completely been in education.
Saj: For people who’ve never worked in adult education, what do you think makes it special or sets it apart from other phases?
Mel: That’s a very interesting question. As I said, my position was always coming about all education, no matter where you start, whether it’s four-year-olds or post-graduate is a political act. I know many people would agree with that, but that’s certainly where I come from. I think what’s different about adult education is both its history, which is beautifully rich and connected really to both change at an individual level and change at a societal level too, although we’ve lost that a little bit.
For me, it’s about what Mezirow, Jack Mezirow, who’s a very famous educational theorist shows the transformative power of adult education and how people’s lives can be transformed and changed through engaging with adult education. That can be a very short experience or it can be as a lifelong learner, which is how I would describe myself really. That ability to be able to shape and frame the way that you can see the world, and so the way that you can see your place in the world, which I think is the essence of transformative education and adult education is what makes it really special for me.
Saj: Having joined Fircroft as a principal after many years of working in adult education, when you came into the college, were you just there to build upon what they were already doing, or was there quite a lot of scope for innovation when you joined Fircroft, would you say?
Mel: Yes, most definitely. I think the way that organizations and change and develop is continual really, I think. What attracted me to Fircroft particularly was that it’s very simple, but it has the word social justice in its mission. That’s quite unusual actually. I thought that was something that I hadn’t really seen before. We’ve had some interesting conversations over the years around that terminology and whether we should change that terminology, whether we should apply different terminology, but we’ve stuck with it and we’re sticking with it for the foreseeable as far as I’m concerned.
It has an amazing historical tradition rooted in those kinds of social justice values. When Cadbury set up the college, he set it up as a working-class college and it continues to be a working-class college. Those principles, although Cadbury might not have talked about transformative learning, that’s in essence what he was talking about. He has a kind of interesting notion around social mobility too, which again, I come back to frequently, which is about engaging in education is not leaving your class, but staying with your class and bettering your class and giving back to your class really.
I think that’s the really interesting difference to maybe the social mobility conversations that we have both in the sector and out of the sector at the moment. There was a really great tradition and all those elements I talked about in terms of what makes it different, why it works, what makes it particular for adults were always there. One of the things that we have to do as a sector is moving and be part of the society of which we are in really. We needed to upgrade our digital infrastructure and we needed to look at various different things that we did.
I don’t think that stopped really. We continue to think about that and think about our purpose, and how we adjust and change as society is adjusting to changing around us. COVID is no different, I think. The challenges that are ahead of us are not any different from the challenges that we have before in terms of the learners that we work with but are massively exacerbated and that pool of people has now grown. It’s always about that continually adjusting and thinking about who do we serve really?
Saj: When Fircroft started, it would have been in quite a rural area, I imagine. Over the years, it’s become more built up, more urban. You have neighbourhoods in your locality that experience deprivation and lots of different types of social problems, some old, some new. How have you responded to these kinds of forces on your doorstep at Fircroft?
Mel: As I said, a key part of our work is working with organisations that are working on the ground as it were. We’re so small. We don’t have huge capacity for outreach although I know that’s very unfashionable also these days, but as I said, it’s continually about adjusting to the communities of the region. Although a lot of our students come from Birmingham, we’ve spread across the West Midlands, and certainly, for our access provision, they might come nationally too. It’s certainly about who are the communities who can benefit from our social justice mission and the kind of approaches and work that we do.
We were just talking offline before about the work that we’re doing now which is a program that’s called Free Thinking, which is working with survivors of modern slavery. That was developed originally by Northern college, and we’ve been able to transfer that program to Birmingham. We’ve recently been awarded City of Sanctuary status [NB: Fircroft is a College of Sanctuary]. We very much see that working with newly arrived communities and communities for whom… have layers upon layers of challenges, whether that’s through language or through some of those being a victim of modern slavery, for example, we really try to think about who our students could be.
Saj: When you’re trying to create that inclusive learning environment, are there any particular unexpected challenges that you come up against trying to create that inclusive learning environment?
Mel: That’s a really interesting question because I don’t think we ever think about it as creating. It’s so entrenched in what we do and it’s so part of the fabric of the organisation. As you say, that’s how it’s been in place for all those years really, and particularly that focus around each individual comes to us with maybe the same narrative and the same story of change, develop, moving on, but everyone’s unique. Everybody should be.. choose around that and everyone’s stories should be heard and listened to.
If that’s where you start, then the shifting of the different communities or experiences shouldn’t make that a difference. If you start with those core principles, then actually you’re always shifting and making adjustments and making changes to inform how you do and what you do. I’m not saying we get everything right all the time because we don’t. We’re always learning and we’re always for it but it’s being open to those learning opportunities and it is about listening and it’s about listening to what people need. I think that’s absolutely the core to it.
Saj: With Fircroft being unique in the region, should we say, when you get certainly new staff coming from other settings that are quite different, do they find it quite easy to adjust to the culture or sometimes do you find that people who aren’t used to it, it takes a little bit of time for them to readjust their expectations?
Mel: Yes, it really does. It really, really does. There’s a bit too good to be true. I suppose I felt that a little bit myself, I was like, “Okay. An organisation that talks about its values and social justice? Scratch the surface if there’s something.” Absolutely, I think the staff who come into the college from a big FE College, for example, or schools or private, the private sector do find it it is a transition and it is something. It’s like all organization.
You have to learn what the culture is. I suppose we talk about it quite explicitly. We talk about being mission-driven and values-led. We are aware of the values and we talk about how we enact those values as part of our managerial conversations and peer conversations and group conversations. We try to create an environment whereby the adjustment isn’t painful as it were. I suppose it can be really, it’s very different. It’s very, very different.
What’s been interesting is we’ve had a couple of members of staff join us over since we went into lockdown. I suppose what I think noticing and watching is how have we been able to transfer those cultural practices and those values into looking at a screen. I think one of the reasons why we’ve been able to do what you’ve been able to do over this really difficult period of time has been because those cultural practices and those values are quite explicit. Working collaboratively and supporting each other are just as important when you’re staring at a screen as they are when you’re in the real-life situation. I think that’s certainly some of the conversations I’ve had is that that’s been more of a challenge, especially coming into the organisation where I’ve just talked about the site and the feeling and the eating. When you remove all of that, it’s probably even harder to adjust.
Saj: Fircroft has, I guess, inherent advantage in the size of it and its rural setting or semirural setting, creates quite a unique environment that not a lot of colleges in the region can benefit from. What lessons do you think the other settings in the region could take from what you’re doing at Fircroft, do you think?
Mel: I suppose I come back to the idea of the importance of that culture and at the end of the day, everything we do is about supporting our learners, basically. I remind myself of that constantly when I spend the day staring at spreadsheets especially, for example, which is not my favourite way to spend the day. I think that that’s really one of the successes that we have, is that that is a fundamental belief of every single person who’s involved with Fircroft whether it’s a member of staff, whether it’s a volunteer, whether it’s a governor, we are all there to make the best situation for the students that we work with really.
I think that focus on something very simple but very easily understood by everybody across the organisation is really important and it’s the same in other organisations. Maybe more intensively so in a residential setting that the student experience is not solely about what happens in the classroom. The students’ experience, the minute they pick up that phone to make a call to you that might be something that they’ve been trying to do for 10 years or that they’re doing on behalf of someone else or that they even click on your website.
That’s when your duty of care towards that learner starts really. I think if you’ve put the student first and recognise that like I said, although there are many similarities in the point at which people join our college or other colleges or take on a program of learning everyone’s got a story to tell. We all love to tell our stories, don’t we? We’re humans. We love for someone to listen to us and to hear us and to understand what we need and to be upfront. Sometimes we can’t provide what people need. Like you said, being small is un-advantageous in some ways, but in other ways it’s really not and you have to be very open about what it is that you can do.
What services and support that you can provide and what you can’t for adults particularly who are coming back into education after a period of time out of it and possibly with not a very good experience of their previous education lives. For them to then take that step to go back into an organisation and for that to be a not good experience, I think is just not acceptable. Basically, that’s not what we are here to do. Those principles I think can be done anywhere and can be thought of anywhere student-centered.
Saj: Do you think that there’s a danger when you’re a senior leader that you start seeing learners as numbers on a spreadsheet and not actually as individuals with quite complex histories and circumstances?
Mel: Yes, of course. The job of leaders in the sector is not easy. We are a massively regulated sector. The challenges of balancing the books of funding of finance are humongous. At the end of the day, as the accounting officer on your head it is that the organisation continues to function and we live in a world whereby those numbers count. I know many, many, many brilliant principals who balance that focus on regulation, finance, audit, all those things but also, talk to their students regularly, walk around their colleges regularly, know all their staff by name, talk to whoever about what’s going on their lives.
That’s what keeps you centred and keep you focused, is creating space and time to do that because that’s as much a part of the work than sitting and staring at spreadsheets as far I’m concerned. Actually, it’s the best part of the work. It’s the thing that keeps me motivated to spend a day sitting with spreadsheets and actually, I don’t really mind spreadsheets. They’re a part of the job, but the other part of the job is as important.
Saj: For all of us who work in education, spreadsheets are a necessary evil in one form or another.
Mel: Step away from the spreadsheets. Go talk to the learners.
Saj: Thinking about social justice and the future of social justice, there’s a lot of activism going on in the world at the moment around things like racial justice, thinking about Black Lives Matter, thinking about climate change… the work of people like Greta Thunberg, how are these movements in the world shaping the future of what you do at Fircroft?
Mel: They’re completely shaping our future, based at our centre, really. I’ve just literally come off a call this morning with our climate change action group. We were the first college in the country to declare climate change an emergency. Our work on equity is hugely important to us in terms of moving our curriculum forward, supporting our learners, supporting our staff, creating those spaces. If you’ve got equity, climate change action and sustainability, they’re two of five strategic themes. As I said, Fircroft hasn’t survived for 111 years by sitting in a bubble and just cracking on with what it thinks it should be doing. As an organisation, it’s our responsibility to be connected.
That’s what social justice is about. It’s about that social aspect of who we are and what we do and the justice element of it and what our role is within that. They have to be completely at our core, absolutely, that’s who we are what we do.
Saj: That’s wonderful. Thank you very much, Mel. I really appreciate the fact that you’ve taken the time to speak with me today. Thank you very much.
Mel: Thanks, Saj.Thanks for having the time to talk about the wonderful Fircroft!
Saj: Thanks again to Mel for giving us an insight into the work of wonderful Fircroft as she put it. If you want to know more about the work of Fircroft College of Adult Education, visit their website at fircroft.ac.uk
You can also find Mel on Twitter @MelLenehan.
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Visit our website UniversalLearning.education to read transcripts of each edition and find out more about how you can put inclusion into practice for all of your learners. The music you’ve heard in this edition is Sinara by Blear Moon, and sound FX are by New Age Soup, both licensed under Creative Commons. Visit UniversalLearning.education for more information.