Lessons from the University of Life : Higher Education
Gerard, Lesley, The Independent (London, England)
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 pounds 1 kitty and met at first in a bun shop. The women received a grant of pounds 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. …