Paul Mitton’s Work in Education and Training: Some Memories and Observations.

Friends, I wanted to pass on to you a bit of history and context, as I know it, about Paul’s work in education and training.

I’ve known Paul, and his partner Jacqui, for over 30 years, and to talk about Paul’s work also entails, as a significant part of it, the passion for education as a means of transformation he shared with Jacqui, his life partner, who also sometimes worked with him. Some of his friends worked with him sometimes too, and Paul engaged with Jacqui, and  with others  in their  network, on joint ventures across the years in a way that often magically blurred any distinctions between what was work and what was private life. At Paul’s funeral we were very movingly  reminded by his close friend Dick Phillips that Paul had played a key role in the mid to late 70’s working on the Riverside Project in Bath which they were both engaged in and  which worked with teenagers who were failing, or being failed, in school, and were ‘truanting’ from school. At the same time a group of us were setting up a similar alternative education provision-inspired by Danish models of working with young people -in Bristol which, finally, the Local Authority provided funding for. Our project was funded and Riverside in Bath was not. It was, as ever, the luck of the draw on scarce resources against perceived priorities….and this is a language, a description that has eerie and alarming resonances and pertinence thirty years on.  This is a month –the month of Paul’s death, when the youth unemployment levels in the UK have now reached 1.2 or perhaps 1.1 million depending on whose statistics you listen to, and there is more or less common agreement that this represents currently around 1 in 5, so one fifth, of 16-25 year olds who are unable to find jobs.

So here we are again…and not ‘happy as can be’ as the old Music Hall song had it….and such also was the case when Paul and others of us in the late seventies began trying to take some action about young people leaving school and trying to enter the world of employment. The work that Paul and others were all involved with was not confined to the school setting. Such school age youngsters, especially those who experienced difficulty and failure in school, when leaving their period of compulsory- some have said- mis-education, most often became those who then, also, were the first to experience another failure in the labour market. A double whammy on might say…of failure in and out of school: a consequence of structural inequality of appropriate opportunity and encouragement in the classroom and of structural unemployment outside of it.

Paul’s work focus has addressed such issues for over thirty years, until now, right up to the time of his death, when just a few months ago, as just one recent example, he and I initiated a last potential plan for recognising the learning of participants on a National Citizen Service scheme who otherwise would not be so adequately equipped to progress towards employment. Paul was one of the first group of people who in the early 80’s was to be employed on the project called the Avon County Youth Opportunities Programme (ACYOP- formerly the Avon County Placement Unit ACPU), which a group of us set up in collaboration with officers of the County Education and Youth Services (and- although perhaps unlikely- the WRVS were involved also!) who were willing to take some risks on innovation. My own role had been getting the national pilot designed and located into Avon and helping to secure the overall funding from the Manpower Services Commission. The work of this project that Paul was part of from its very early days went on to be vital to the wellbeing of thousands of young people in the area who mostly and fundamentally, through little or no fault of their own, found themselves jobless.

Structural unemployment was a backdrop to Paul’s work -and many others too like Geoff Brain and Dick Willis who we also heard from very movingly at Paul’s funeral. And I think its true to say that despite all efforts over many years here we are once more facing the dire consequences- this time round if it was not so before- of the greed  and neglect of others, and, once more, as it was before, of the workings of an insufficiently regulated market economy. And its important to note also that, despite efforts from many, the illusion in some influential quarters has been maintained to this day that the failure to secure employment was and is somehow due to individual failings…laziness, fecklessness…to individual pathology. Blame the victim. If you can’t get a job its because you’re not trying hard enough or have not got on your bike to travel far enough, or have become mesmerised by the panderings of the ‘nanny’ welfare state safety nets….now so systematically being stripped away. It wouldn’t be, on this perceptual model, the fault of employers who may have moved off elsewhere globally to find cheaper labour….or of bankers who have gambled peoples’ lives and livelihoods away.
And equally there was always a sense in which, back then and now, many young people came out of a school system without having developed the skills, knowledge and competencies needed for employment, needed for further learning and needed for life. And who is to blame for that I wonder? Would this be about individual pathology-failure of the individual- or of an education system which, for example in the 1980s did not encourage further learning beyond 16, and in which, every year,  it was a matter for very little comment that over 70% of the cohort left formal schooling without any qualifications whatsoever. Friends, shall we blame the victims?
Paul didn’t of course….and those who went on to work with him. What  was provided instead was a thread of hope for such young people. An encouragement to do better despite circumstances…and here is the crux…I’m talking about Paul’s work in leading the way in offering a context of encouragement-because you get the best out of people through encouragement- of  providing a context of listening, of caring, of patience and of appropriate challenge and structure and follow through.

It had been in 1988/89 that Paul approached me to ask if the Accredited Training Centre (ATC) –set up in Bristol Polytechnic in 1982 with money from the Manpower Services Commission as one of a national network of such centres to service the staff development needs of the various versions of  youth employment schemes ….and was a network actually created as an afterthought about youth training for unemployed youngsters-would host and overall manage the work he had led for the Avon Training Agency… which itself had emerged out of ACPU and ACYOP and all the other interim project acronyms that abounded at the time.

After consultation with existing ATC staff and our other University of the West of England (UWE) senior managers, we appointed Paul and made arrangements for other colleagues to work on a part time basis. It was at this time that ATCs activity began to focus on direct training services for those who were unemployed as well as on providing the development for staff, consultancy and research for which it had originally been set up.
Paul went on to manage this new section of the ATC from 1989-2004 when I left the City of Bristol College (to which we had transferred under the aegis of Brian Styles in 1996/97 from the University of the West of England, since in the immortal words of the then remaining UWE Vice Chancellor we were not considered any longer to be ‘core business’ for the University). From 2004 when I left until his retirement in 2010 Paul continued to work with the various and many staff and remnant aspects of the work which remained housed, but dispersed, across other departments of the City of Bristol College.

But this history of dates and administrative phases does not catch the genius of Paul’s contribution…because genius it was….His genius in  contributing to the life chances of so many. And it is important to try to capture something of the essence of this, just because what was created through Paul’s flair and energy as a s a teacher and as a manager of resources was on behalf of those who most needed help and it is a story of  soul and magic as much as of practical assistance and application.

I’ll relate just two examples which might yield a glimpse.  For some years, through other work at ASDAN- a national project focussed on the development and recognition of personal and social skills- a number of qualifications had been put into the National Qualifications Framework , they are called the Wider Key Skills. It was part of Paul’s genius that he was able to take up these qualification and run with them…breathe life and purpose into them. He created with colleagues- whose expertise and skills also cannot be underestimated - a whole network of possibilities for young people using an admixture of flair and creative energy which brought alive these dry instruments. I remember Paul describing plans to take into a whole variety of  community settings workshops he called ‘Making Your Dreams Come True’, or maybe on other occasions it could be ‘Following your Dreams’  The titles both do and don’t matter so much….they do in the sense that they were manifestations of creating context and relevance…interpreting what was on paper- the ‘specification’s- in ways that made immediate sense and practical relevance to the lives of people….and they don’t matter so much in the sense that what really mattered was the flair and creativity which was able to start where learners were as persons, to start with you and with you , and to provide each person with a support and an encouragement, with minimum structure, that allowed you to take what enthused you, or take what you had, and turn it, as if by magic- and it was magic at its best because there’s a magic in the sort of inspirational teaching that Paul was capable of- into the realities of planning something further, then doing something and reviewing what you have done in order to do it better. Educationalists call it the ‘Experiential Learning Cycle’. It takes the likes of Paul and colleagues to make the dream and the theory into a concrete means of actually developing what people want to do in their lives into a reality.

And sometimes the realities of peoples’ starting points were both unpromising and even bleak….because my second example of the genius of Paul’s work, which is also an example of his joint life/work collaboration with his partner Jacqui who was also centrally involved, revolves around the activity led by him and the team with those same Wider Key Skills to accredit the learning of homeless people vending the ‘Big Issue’ in Bath…using the very experiences of their homelessness and their selling of the ‘Big Issue ‘magazine on the streets as a means-starting absolutely with their lived experience- of then  building form it. Start your journey from where you are…however bleak, and however unpromising….and if you have the luck of coming into contact with a Paul Mitton  or of one of the many he encouraged into helping others from the basis of their own lived experiences…then you may begin to ascend and you may progress.

I am haunted by this and by Paul’s death…its an important haunting as many haunting things are… because it’s about recognising the importance of spirit, of knowing that spirit can live on through others and in hoping that it will….because at the close of November 2011 we need that contribution of hope that Paul gave to so many, as much now as we needed it back in the seventies and eighties when we all first met and began a journey that continues to this day to point us forward.

Dave Brockington.
November 2011