"Adult education has a transformative impact on society, and we need to be its standard bearer."
When someone has left education at the age of 16 and has fallen into a series of service based roles, it usually sees them earning by the hour for the rest of their life. The ladder put down by adult education should be there to help these people climb up and better their life chances. If this country is to see the full potential from a person who, at the time, were not ready to be educated and didn’t know or care why it was important then, it needs to give them a leg up. If we fail to do so, they may fall into a lifetime cycle of low pay and insecure work. We pride ourselves on having an education system that, for all its faults, delivers for many people who are engaged and want to benefit from it. However, in recent times the very system that was supposed to help these people has simple broken down.
My experience of the adult education system is quite pronounced. I left education at 16, flunking out of my AS Levels as I wasn’t engaged, lacked motivation and was directionless. I wasn’t ready. The first job I could find was through a friend as a yard boy in a plant hire yard in Godstone which I really enjoyed at the time and look back on with fond memories. It taught me what a 5am start looked like on a winters morning, driving to work on a clapped out moped dodging ice on the road and beginning the working day with a bacon sandwich, cup of coffee and a copy of the Sun. The days were filled with cleaning machinery, yard maintenance and dealing with customers but it wasn’t to last, and after 6 months it was time to move on.
The next experience of finding work was interesting. Walking around Horley town centre with printed copies of a sparsely filled CV hoping that Dominos or Wetherspoons would give the time of day to a 17-year-old with little experience. There was one guy who did, Guy Collingwood of Collingwood and Bachelor Department Store. I walked in wearing jeans, t-shirt and grubby jacket to the showroom filled with high-end furniture suites and homeware targeted at the retired and middle classes and somehow he decided that he liked my approach, CV in hand, and gave me a job – he even gave me an advance on my first pay check to buy shirts and a suit. This turned into a year spent selling and delivering furniture, helping around the store with moving stock, being a handyman and developing a certain set of soft skills which have been utilised time and again since. But it wasn’t to last, earning £12,000 per year doesn’t give you many life options.
You should never linger on regrets when it comes to where you’ve worked and what you’ve done. It’s your life experience that has developed you into who you are, and you should take pride in it. Working as a Deputy Manager for Coral is a regret I find hard to shift, but it is an experience I wouldn’t change, it gave me a window into a world of addiction that I will never forget. I worked up to 12-hour on and off shifts in multiple locations in Horley, Crawley, Redhill, Gatwick Airport for a time and anywhere else they required me to go. We weren’t trained to deal with the problems we saw daily, we were there to manage the flow of money into Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) and take the occasional bet on football, horse racing or Strictly Come Dancing. This showed me how some companies have no conscious towards their customers, and simply consider them pawns for financial gain. Betting companies have no regard for the emotional wellbeing of their trade’s customers, their purpose isn’t to facilitate High-Street fun but to enable serious and, to many, unseen addiction on our high streets. Once again it was never going to last and after a year of earning half decent money but a dark undercurrent. I would next work in the world of poker.
I would start there as a part-time poker dealer and after three years I was running the small bar with three members of staff under me. It was a fulfilling and enjoyable experience with a genuine sense of community. Our regulars were predominantly men of a certain age who came for the social aspect as much as for the poker, it was private members club that created a safe space for people to enjoy themselves. But after three years of working nights I came to realise that something needed to change or I would face a lifetime of dead-end jobs with no way out.
At the age of 21 after I received friendly advice from Steve Chrichley, a business man turned motivational speaker, and Danny Toffel, a man who made a million – lost it – then made it again, both of whom I met through the club. They didn’t tell me what to do, merely to do what I thought would work best for me, so I chose to return to education.
The access to higher education diploma course at Central Sussex College in 2010 was an incredibly empowering initiative brought in under Blair and Brown that gave people the ability to change the course of their lives. It was funded in a way that meant you didn’t have to pay the £550 cost, that was subsidised by the Treasury, instead only incurring a £50 administration fee. So, with my last £50 note and no money in the bank, I paid for a chance to put my foot on the ladder – and it transformed my life. I spent the next year going to college every Thursday and Friday evening. I mixed with a fantastic group of people all looking to make a difference, not just to themselves but to their families and society. They were primarily single mums looking for routes into teaching, nursing and other noble professions with a sprinkling of young men such as myself looking for a chance to escape the monotony of unqualified life. I thank them for the influence they have had on my life. They are heroes. Bringing up children on a shoe string, dealing with the stresses of daily life and better themselves and their families, these are the people who chose to get a hand up from the state and not a hand out.
Towards the end of the course we had to select our three UCAS options that would determine where we were going to study and what. The first option, I was told, is one you’re not likely to get, the second is the one you want to do and the third is the one you’ll take if as else fails. The access course doesn’t offer great choice but simply provides UCAS points that gives you access to moderate courses and lower tier institutions. I knew I was interested in politics so my first choice was British Politics and Legislative Studies at Hull University, a course that required three to four times the amount of UCAS points I received. But after a passionate statement, with 1500 people applying, 150 interviews or more conducted and a whittling down process, I was one of 21 people to be accepted on the flag ship degree course at one of the country’s top politics departments. The questions that Matt Beech asked in my interview that has stuck with me was about my knowledge of Parliament, I informed him that I had none, ‘that’s what I’m here to learn’.
Being teleported from one life to another is a strange experience. The course was two years in Hull learning how the legislative system works, a year in parliament with an MP seeing how it works and then the last year spent writing about it. Going from a bacon sandwich and a copy of the sun with 5am starts, to working as an intern in parliament for the man who was largely responsible for the downfall of the News of the World puts things into perspective. I worked for a man who was spurred onto use his Parliamentary office as a vehicle for significant political change when seeing wrongdoing and injustice in the world. Working under Tom Watson and Karie Murphy was so far removed from anything that my life involved before turning 21. I was eager to learn about how parliament worked but didn’t realise I was learning how change can be enacted through our parliamentary democracy.
The subsidies for the Access to Higher Education Course I was on in 2010 was one of first things to face the axe under the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Coalition. They removed the run on the ladder I stepped on with my last £50 note and disregarded the aspirations of other 21-year olds like me. With the subsidy cut, people looking for a hand up are no longer able to afford the course causing a drop-in people signing on and the college pulling the course. The experience I have had may be unique in some ways but if you give people a chance to explore their potential at a time when they are ready, you will see a transformative impact. The Labour Party needs to put this run back on the ladder. Adult education has a transformative impact on society, and we need to be its standard bearer.
Adam Allnutt is a Young Fabians member