Lessons from the university of life : Higher Education

Lesley Gerard on the women whose education began in the soup kitchens of the miners' strike
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The Independent Online
Once they stood on the picket lines and fought for the survival of the coal mines. Ten years later they are debating Shakespeare, the industrial revolution and events in Chechnya.

For the miners' wives of Castleford, West Yorkshire, the past decade has been a journey of self-discovery, culminating in the introduction of a university degree course at their women's centre. Leeds Metropolitan University has formed a partnership to deliver degree-level education at Castleford Women's Centre, a base set up eight years ago to provide adult education in the area.

More than 60 students have enrolled on the bachelor of arts honours course, which runs alongside other classes ranging from pyschology and women's studies to calligraphy and flower-arranging.

It is a success story that began in the soup kitchens of the 1984 miners' strike. The centre's founders, Margaret Handford, Barbara Smith and Dot Whitworth, met during North Yorkshire branch meetings of Women Against Pit Closures. As the strike went on, the miners' wives assumed a key role. They joined picket lines, were instructed by the National Union of Mineworkers in debt management, distributed food parcels and lobbied at home and abroad for donations of money, food and clothes.

When the strike ended in March 1985, the women were demoralised. "We knew then that the pit closures we had been fighting against would go ahead," says Barbara. "We had been labelled `the enemy within'. We felt bruised and betrayed."

But their experience during that year - fundraising on university campuses, playing host to delegations from foreign mining communities - gave impetus to changes in their lives.

"Some women just wanted their lives back," says Margaret, "but I felt `I can do something with all this energy and adrenaline I have discovered.' What we had learnt was how to be in control - that is where this drive to learn comes from."

When the men returned to work, 12 wives decided to stay in touch. Castleford Women's Centre was launched with a £1 kitty and met at first in a bun shop. The women received a grant of £10,000 from the former Wakefield County Council just after the strike, but had difficulty spending it. "We had become so thrifty that we had a heated three-hour argument on whether to get a kettle," says Barbara.

Eight years ago, Wakefield Metropolitan District Council gave them a building, Hopewell House, in Wesley Street, on a peppercorn rent. The centre now occupies a second building in Wesley Street, sharing facilities with the Citizen Advice Bureau, Housing Aid, and agoraphobia and victim support groups. It provides a free crche. Two annexes - the Warwick Neighbourhood Training Centre in Knottingley and Airedale Adult Learners Centre, Airedale - offer vocational and leisure courses.

More than 1,000 students - mostly women - attend the centre each week, and a further 1,000 take classes at the other two centres. The six-year degree course, which started in September, consists of six subjects for a combined BA honours degree. Students attend classes every Wednesday.

Lecturers are seconded from Leeds Metropolitan University and students have use of its library. Non-degree courses are taught by lecturers from the University of Leeds and the Workers Education Association. Students can attend weekend classes at Northern College, Barnsley.

Margaret is now the principal of the centre, Barbara the manager and counsellor to the students, and Dot is treasurer. All three are taking the new degree course as well as carrying out a recruitment drive.

Students like Beth signed up in Castleford shopping centre. Beth (not her real name) was raped as a youngster, had a child which died, and her first marriage ended in divorce. Now she has remarried and has two children. She left school with one GCSE. To her, studying for a degree is a way of regaining self-esteem.

She says: "I never thought I would have the chance to do a degree. I would never have had the courage to go to a university and face all those confident 18-year-olds. I thought I might be considered pretentious for contemplating higher education."

She is hooked on Shakespeare. "It's been a revelation. His characters are so human and relevant. I had never read his plays before; I assumed it was impenetrable.

"It will be nice to get a degree, but the prestige for me is being able to say I've done something for myself. It makes me feel I can walk down the street."

Castleford Women's Centre has a sign outside the door claiming the title "the university of life". Barbara Smith believes the centre can offer its students encouragement and a support network that large universities cannot match. Her life, she insists, has been transformed by higher education.

"When the lecturer explained to us the other day why they were fighting in Chechnya, I went home and told everyone on the bus. Then the gas man came and I explained it to him too.

"Learning means so much to me. I get very emotional about it. The people who are educated are the people who can read between the lines and get to the truth in this world."

She shakes her head in disbelief: "Who would have ever believed that something good could have come out of that strike?"