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Adult Education: Darren Hankey


Principal, Hartlepool College, Darren Hankey, shares his experiences of adult education:

Simply put, adult education transformed my life. I was raised on an inner-city council estate in the Midlands and was in receipt of free school meals throughout primary and secondary school years. In my family, education was not discussed – I was never asked if I had homework, if I’d done my homework or if I needed help with my homework. As a result of this I didn’t do as much homework as I should and, ultimately, I left school in the summer of 1986 with the equivalent of 3 GCSEs.

The world of work was my post-school destination and this was good for me for three reasons. Firstly, I had an income and that cash in my pocket gave me financial independence which is great when you’re a teenager. My first car soon followed as did my first overseas summer holiday. Secondly, it got me into good habits, habits that we work hard to instil into Hartlepool College of FE students today – be on time, work hard and be nice. Finally, it made me realise that my school leaving qualifications were not going to help me progress at work – they just weren’t good enough to be considered for other posts.

The solution was adult education. I was nearly 19 by this stage and as I’d got used to working fulltime and enjoying the income, even though it was modest; giving this up was something I couldn’t consider. So, night classes it was going to be and I enrolled to my local FE college at the start of the 1988/89 academic year with a knot in my stomach I hadn’t experienced for some time. The knot soon disappeared and I began to thrive. Little did I know that late September evening that I’d spend four years at night school and this would eventually bring me to the wonderful North East via studying for a degree at Sunderland University.

It wasn’t always plain sailing and there were lots of bumps in the road. I did an A Level in Sociology and failed at the first attempt. Part of me wanted to quit at this juncture, but with caring FE staff and a clear resit strategy; I persevered and went onto pass. In the 1991/92 academic year, I was a night school for 4 nights a week and combining this with full-time work was tough going. Also I was in my late teens/early 20s and missed out on some of the things my friends were doing – I remember missing the chance to see The Farm just before a key exam.

But, for me, those four years were worth it. After my time at Sunderland, I trained to be a teacher in London and had several happy years in the Capital. I jumped at the chance to move back to the North East in 2001 when a position at Hartlepool College of FE opened up and twelve years later I was proud, privileged and honoured to become the College’s Principal and Chief Executive.

In my time at Hartlepool College, one thing that has saddened me is the demise of adult education. Nationally, the funding for this is circa 40% less than it was in 2010. Similarly, participation in adult education is at a record low and report after report highlight the impact of this on those folk who could do with this service the most. Folk like me who, for whatever reason, didn’t maximise the opportunities formal education provided. I also think the way the jobs market has evolved in recent years has not helped. The rise of precarious jobs usually means that those who undertake these roles are less likely to benefit from work-sponsored training/education and also have limited time or finances to make these investments themselves.

For me, this is such a shame as it leads to a waste of talent and also contributed to other issues. For example, the benefits of education are much wider than providing skills for the world of work, although this is a laudable aim of adult education. Education is strongly correlated to enhanced mental and physical health outcomes as well as other prosocial behaviours – such as abiding the law. It’s good to see policy-makers starting to talk again about lifelong learning and the need to invest in people throughout their working lives. Now those words need to be converted into actions and policy that can allow people to study, whether in combination with work or not, in an affordable manner.