I interviewed Brian Groombridge, fittingly enough at Birkbeck College, in January 2014, some 18 months before he died, last year, aged 89. The piece was to appear in Adults Learning, the first in a planned series on outstanding individuals with careers in adult education. Sadly, my own career as editor did not endure long enough for the piece to appear and Adults Learning itself folded shortly after, an event that would, I am sure, have grieved Brian, who greatly valued it and was a regular and eloquent contributor. I had met Brian on numerous previous occasions and we corresponded regularly throughout my editorship of Adults Learning. He was unstinting in his support and encouragement. I remember meeting him for the first time, at an Adult Learners’ Week event in 2003. I was struck then, as I was at every subsequent meeting, by his kindness, humility and generosity of spirit. Of course, in addition to these very significant personal qualities, he brought tremendous creativity and imagination to his incredibly varied professional work, guided, from a very young age, by a passionate belief in the transformative power of education. I hope I can convey some sense of these qualities here.
Brian’s lifelong commitment to education had its roots in his childhood experiences. While he grew up in a ‘bookless’ household he was, nevertheless, surrounded by culture from an early age. His mother ‘had hardly any education at all’ but was ‘a brilliant singer’ who became an active member of the London Philharmonic Choir. His father could play the piano and would often accompany his mother’s singing. Brian also recalled listening, rapt, to the Master of the King’s Music on BBC radio’s Children’s Hour as a child, perhaps sowing the seeds for his later enthusiasm for educational broadcasting. Brian’s experience of schooling, however, was ‘very, very ordinary’. Had he continued, his expectations would have been to leave school at 14 or 15 and go into a routine office job. The Second World War, however, intervened, and Brian was evacuated to Midhurst in West Sussex, where his father had family. It was at Midhurst Grammar School that he encountered good, progressive education for the first time, thanks largely to its remarkable head teacher, NBC Lucas.
Lucas’s approach was notable for its rejection of rote learning and his belief that pupils learned better when they were treated as individuals and given more control over their activities, both in the classroom and outside of it. ‘The governors of Midhurst Grammas School had remarkably little confidence in him,’ Brian recalled, ‘but when two head teachers left the school they had no choice but to appoint him. What they didn’t know was that “Luke”, as we all called him, was an extraordinarily imaginative man who had thought deeply about the different ways of educating people. For example, boarders were not expected to do everything they were told. They were expected to have meetings to discuss how the boarding arrangements should be run and what kind of help they could give to the staff … he was looking for students who had ideas of their own. The test was not merely do you remember what you were told so you can pass an examination. He was looking for people who had the ability to develop the ideas and information they were given. One consequence of that was that there were boys in the sixth form – there were only boys at that time – who were astonished to find themselves earning scholarships or exhibitions to Oxford and Cambridge. And I was one of the people who were extraordinarily lucky.’
Brian accepted a scholarship to Christ College Cambridge, where he read moral sciences and history. It was, he said, ‘quite extraordinary’ for someone from so ‘ordinary’ a background to have such an opportunity. ‘That was the basis of my enthusiasm for education as such, an education that enabled people to grow in ways they had not necessarily expected,’ he said. However, Brian’s studies soon had to be postponed. In 1945, he volunteered to join the Royal Air Force, training to be a co-pilot in a Tiger Moth. When the war ended a few months later, Brian was obliged to remain in the RAF, serving a further four years. Although this gave him an opportunity to tutor civil servants in current affairs – his first teaching experience – he was mostly engaged in ‘humdrum’ jobs, including checking luggage records at the air ministry offices in Kensington High Street. The airmen had usually finished their allotted tasks by 2pm, which gave Brian the chance to study at Morley College and the City Lit, two iconic institutions in British adult education history. He remembers both as ‘stunningly good’ places to learn, staffed by many outstanding tutors, often very notable figures in their respective fields. He studied English and philosophy, among other subjects. The experience was crucial in convincing Brian to make his career in adult education. One of the tutors he studied with was Rupert Doone, the dancer, choreographer and theatre director, who was instrumental in one of the most unlikely episodes in Brian’s story.
‘He wanted to teach adults how to move on the stage, how to dance,’ Brian recalled. ‘I thought that sounded like it was going to be very enjoyable and very interesting. If I was going to be a lecturer I needed to know what it was like to be visible and to be audible so I was quite interested to know what kind of thing Rupert Doone would be doing. Doone [as a dancer] had been engaged by Diaghilev – his own personal history was remarkable. He took some of us to help out at what was then the Sadler’s Wells ballet company. You may find this hard to believe – I find it hard to believe myself – but I was one of the people chosen to be a non-dancing member of the cast of Sleeping Beauty. I wasn’t a dancer but I had to move about and be part of the palace court. That was because the producer felt it was necessary to have people whose job was standing in command in particular places. I was in act one and act three, learning how to walk on a stage. It was an astonishing experience. This was British ballet at its best … and I was in that for a season. A quite remarkable experience.’
By the time Brian returned to Cambridge to complete his degree he had decided to become a tutor in adult education, going straight from graduation into teaching adults, a ‘quite unheard of’ move at the time. His first jobs were as ‘wardens’ of two adult education settlements, in Letchworth and Rugby, where he encountered education with democratic principles similar to those from which he had benefited at Midhurst. Students would help run the centres and were able to shape their own syllabuses. Both settlements were notable for the wide variety of different adult education opportunities they offered. They combined university extra-mural programmes, local authority courses and Worker’s Educational Association provision with arts and crafts clubs, drama groups, voluntary societies and other groups and activities, according to demand. ‘Nothing was despised,’ Brian said. Staff at the centre encouraged students to set up societies which they ran and organised themselves, a pleasing continuity between settlement adult education, the sort of education Brian experienced under NBC Lucas and the sort of education he would later advocate in helping set up the University of the Third Age (U3A).
In 1957, Brian was invited by National Institute of Adult Education (NIAE) director Edward Hutchinson to work on a new research project. The book that resulted, Education and Retirement, was a study of the relevance of education to the enjoyment of retirement. The first British work to acknowledge the link between education and leisure, it was based both on field research in Britain and on pioneering research and practice from the United States, a first hint of the internationalism that would colour much of his later work. He undertook a wide range of freelance work, including broadcasting work for the BBC and Granada TV and running Michael Young’s Research Institute for Consumer Affairs (RICA), for which he conducted a range of studies on subjects as diverse as estate agents, children’s toys and libraries, before returning to the NIAE, this time as deputy to Edward Hutchinson, in 1964.
Perhaps Brian’s most significant contribution to the institute’s work was to extend and deepen its involvement and interest in educational broadcasting. He was a member of the planning committee for the Open University and drafted the section on broadcasting in the Russell Committee’s report, Adult Education: A plan for development, published in 1973. ‘As a member of the committee and because I was already convinced about broadcasting, I tried to persuade Lionel Russell that we ought to deal with broadcasting as well. You can’t talk about adult education and leave out broadcasting. I’m not sure how convinced he was but I was allowed to say something about how important and relevant broadcasting is to adult education. It got a mention, albeit briefly.’ Around the same time, Brian wrote what he believed to be his best book, Television and the people: A programme for democratic participation. He argued that television must do more to support participatory democracy, with viewers becoming actors rather than onlookers and communities becoming active in the production of programmes. His concern about the ‘gap between those who make the programmes and those who receive them’ is just as relevant today as it was in 1972, when the book was published.
In 1968, Brian was appointed head of education at the Independent Broadcasting Authority, leading a small team responsible for ensuring that the 15 broadcasting companies made local and networked series for schools, adult and further education which met the IBA’s standards and complemented the BBC’s public-service output. ‘That was one of the most productive periods of my career,’ Brian said. ‘The way in which governments have since decided, for one reason or another, to reduce the 15 companies, all of which were very active in their local communities, to one isn’t progress to me.’ Broadcasting represented, for Brian, an answer to the question that faces all adult education organisations: how do you reach everybody? ‘There was a very basic answer, which was two years older than me. I am now 87, I shall be 88 in a few months, and the BBC was set up two years before I was created. Broadcasting is not a novelty. But broadcasting from the very beginning had certain public responsibilities. The BBC was not allowed to do whatever it felt like doing. It was meant to do things which included not only information but education and enlightenment. My own education owed a lot to BBC radio from the beginning of my mental awareness. It is entirely relevant to my continuing respect for what broadcasting can do. Look at David Attenborough. He is quite remarkable, one of the best people to have ever done adult education. Of course, we don’t call it that, but it is adult learning, brilliantly done.’
In 1976, Brian was appointed director of extra-mural studies at the University of London, running the biggest such department in the country, providing part-time adult education opportunities across the whole of greater London. Brian picked out two achievements as being especially significant during this period of his career. The first was the introduction of an academic board to represent the views of academic and non-academic staff (recognizing that non-academic staff were often closer to the learners and more attentive to their needs). The second was his attempt to bring together all the organisations in greater London who shared similar values and interests under the umbrella of the London Association of Continuing Education (LACE). ‘The beauty of LACE was that organisations which had hitherto been separate or even rivals now saw that it would be possible to cooperate. I think that was a good idea, only undermined by a government determined to do away with things.’ Government policy led, eventually, to the department becoming part of Birkbeck College, where it continued to thrive.
One of Brian’s most significant achievements during this period of his life was the introduction of the U3A in the UK. Brian visited a number of universities in France, including Toulouse, which set up the first U3A, on an extra-mural basis, in 1973, to learn about their provision for older adults. ‘It was a great experience. I came back absolutely thrilled by this idea of a university establishment that provided learning opportunities specialising in older people who had always been overlooked or treated with condescension or neglect. The French had broken that pattern. How were we to do it? Well, for a year or so I struggled. I had a very busy adult education department to run, the biggest provider of adult education opportunities in the capital. In the end, I thought maybe Michael Young. So I had a special meeting with Michael at his headquarters in Bethnal Green. He loved the idea but he said we won’t have it run by universities, we will run it, and that was the University of the Third Age, now one of the most successful adult education enterprises in the country.’
After his ‘retirement’, Brian continued to be an active citizen, pursuing his interest in numerous causes related to education across a range of fronts. He continued to work with many different organisations, including Help the Aged, the Voice of the Listener and Viewer, the Scarman Trust and, of course, the U3A. He also deepened his international connections, having taken up numerous opportunities to work with UNESCO, in a number of countries, during his career. His work with the IBA led to meetings with the European Broadcasting Union, where he forged many connections with colleagues in other countries. His links to Finland were, however, of special importance to him. ‘I found myself very much at ease with the Finns, having lots of things in common with them, especially politically,’ he told me. ‘The market doesn’t dominate where the values come from there. I found the Finns, although very reticent, to be very creative people in all sorts of social and imaginative ways.’ Brian forged close links with his counterpart at Helsinki University and was, for some years, on the board of the Finnish Institute in London, helping build political bridges between the two countries. He was made an honorary doctor of the University of Helsinki in 1990 and a Knight of the White Rose of Finland in 1999.
What attracted Brian to the Nordic countries was their confident assertion of human values above those of the market. The cultivation of human rather than narrowly economic values was at the heart of his work. He saw that that needed to continue throughout a person’s lifetime, helping them stay active, interested and engaged, as well as economically useful. ‘It is fundamentally about people having brains and talents which are potentially lifelong,’ he told me. ‘An enormous number of people, when they retire, think what the hell am I supposed to do now. But, if you take the U3A as one example, a particularly good example, people can still learn and discover and something they were vaguely interested in can become something they care about passionately and learn a great deal about. The ability to learn is a lifelong characteristic. Biologically, in all sorts of ways, human beings have an amazing capacity for development, which has historically been neglected. It is no longer being neglected to the same extent, except in that some of the most extraordinary developments in providing learning opportunities for adults have been dismissed or done away with by very, very poor governments. You don’t have extra-mural departments anymore, to give one example. You have to go to Birkbeck, which is a very good thing to do, but how many people can come here compared with the hundreds of people who had opportunities when there were extra-mural departments. We’re talking about the fundamental characteristics of human beings. The principles of adult education have been more and more reinforced and verified but the practice has suffered unduly from governmental aversion and neglect. And we are still working out how to make use of very advanced technologies from an educational point of view. When I started there were quite a lot of promising developments. Now, I would have to say that our governments have successively ruined a great deal of our potential for giving people a variety of educational opportunities, which I experienced firsthand in the course of my first full-time job.’
A special note of thanks to Stephen McNair who (some time ago – sorry, Stephen) loaned me his copy of Television and the People for the writing of this article.