Adult education transformed the life of her father, a Derbyshire miner. Dr Sharon Clancy explains how his experience influenced her career change and inspired research into policies to help people back into education, training and employment.
Dr Sharon Clancy does not have a typical academic background. Born and bred in the small mining town of Bolsover in Derbyshire, she comes from a family of miners. Academia was not a career path that was presented to her. However, after gaining straight As in A-level at the local comprehensive, she went against the grain and secured a place studying English Literature at Cambridge.
She later went on to work in the charity sector and then in community partnerships here at the University, but it was not until three years ago, that she left a secure job to undertake a PhD.
Dr Clancy’s focus was on adult education – something she’d felt passionate about after seeing her own father break the mould and leave the mining community that he had been part of since he was 14 years old.
“My dad was a miner, as was my grandad. His teachers described him as really quiet, but brilliant. He was smart, funny, creative and a fantastic writer. Sadly, none of his talent was ever developed as it was just assumed that he would work in the pit.
“Although he was bright, he didn’t pass his 11+ so he ended up going to secondary modern and nobody bothered with him after that. He went to work in the pit, but he was never satisfied with that life.”
After a period of travelling across Canada, Dr Clancy’s father returned to a job at the pit. But his desire to learn led him to evening classes and eventually a scholarship at Ruskin College – an independent residential adult learning college in Oxford.
“He studied sociology and politics for two years, and then he became a social worker – he was in his thirties when he qualified. He was revolutionised by adult education. He totally changed, but never looked down on the people he knew who’d stayed in mining.”
Dr Clancy now studies institutions such as Ruskin and their role in supporting learning and personal transformation.
“Residential education is particularly valuable for those who’ve faced extraordinary personal and societal changes. Many students come with barriers to learning such as ADHD, dyslexia, mental health or anxiety issues that have gone undiagnosed at school. Second chance learning opportunities for people with issues like these are a unique and invaluable social resource. It is about taking people from backgrounds like mining, for instance, and giving them a chance to develop a new professional skill.”
There’s still a need for adult education, especially in a world where we continuously need to adapt to changing jobs, technology and society
Despite the social value they offer, there are currently only four remaining adult residential colleges in the UK.
“I’m fascinated by the fact that everything we do in education now seems to focus on employability and skills. For me, it’s about understanding barriers to employment and training or education.”
“Colleges like Ruskin are about more than just qualifications. They are about teaching people about community and citizenship, about the values of democracy and about bringing people together from diverse backgrounds.
“Social mobility is a phrase used a lot in politics today – but what does it mean and how does it affect people’s education? Do people realise that we are living in a society where we are creating societal barriers?” Dr Clancy asks. “This is particularly problematic for people in areas like where I grew up, where an industry has declined and towns are being forgotten. Colleges like Ruskin address some of these issues and their decline is very sad.”
And does Dr Clancy regret her career change?
“It was a massive gamble. I had always worked full-time and I’d always earned a good salary. But no I don’t regret it. Every bit of the research I do now seems to end up tying in with some part of my own life. It’s absolutely fascinating stuff. There’s still a need for adult education, especially in a world where we continuously need to adapt to changing jobs, technology and society.”