Alan Burnett shares his brilliantly funny account of his time with Fircroft College. Our 110 Stories series is not only focusing on our heritage, but how the collective experience of our alumni can influence any existing students. 

You may remember that Alan shared his story of Bert the Gardener, and obviously has fond memories of his time here. 

Alan Burnett was born in Bradford in 1948 and moved a few miles down the road to Halifax when he was five years old. He took an early interest in photography, and for a time was planning to become a photographer on the local newspaper. When that didn’t come about, he spent a short period in a variety of jobs before becoming a student at Fircroft Adult Education College in 1968. 

After his year at Fircroft he got  a place at Keele University where he studied politics and economics. On leaving university he moved to London, got married and got a job as an Information Officer at the national headquarters of the Labour Party.

In the late 1970s, he and his wife returned to the North of England, and he eventually became a lecturer in trade union studies at Doncaster Institute of Higher Education. By the end of the 1980s, he had begun to lose his hearing and over the next few years he became totally deaf. He worked as a consultant for the Commission of the European Communities and for ten years edited their various trade union publications. He also set up his own on-line information service specialising in European social policy issues.

He is now retired and spends his time walking the dog, cataloguing his old photographs, and writing books few people ever read (they’re his words, not ours!).

When were you a student at Fircroft? 

I was a student at Fircroft College from September 1968 until July 1969: a relatively short period of time, but one which had an enormous influence on my life. I was just twenty years old when I came to Fircroft and this made me the youngest student there by a considerable margin. On arriving at Selly Oak for the first day of term, I discovered my fellow students - about thirty or so in total - were from the most diverse background imaginable: an incredible mixture of young and old, from continents and countries throughout the world, with cultural, occupational and social backgrounds that were so diverse, it was almost like some complex experiment in social integration. 

There was a flower shop owner from Kent, a car assembly line worker from Coventry, an ex-miner from Newcastle, a trade union official from Singapore, a newspaper sub-editor from London, a government official from Malawi, a political leader from Guyana, a German butcher, a fireman from East Anglia, a chap running away from the Soviet secret police in Czechoslovakia …. and many, many more with even stranger back stories than these. You could have locked the forty of us up in an old house, provided a regular supply of food, drink and books, and left us to it - to learn from each other, to thrive off our differences, to grow together. 

Indeed, I suspect that was a fair description of the educational philosophy of Fircroft College.

How did you come to be a student at Fircroft? 

Like so many things in life, it was a combination of bad luck and good fortune. The bad luck was finding myself at the age of twenty with little idea of where I was going in life. Photography was one of my passions as a teenager (it still is), and whilst I was still at school I had arranged a job as a press photographer on our local newspaper. I was due to start the week after finishing school. 

My other passion was politics (it still is), and I was heavily involved in the local Labour Party and the Labour Party Young Socialists nationally. A few days before I was due to start work I was informed that there was no longer a job for me - restructuring was blamed but I was later told that they were concerned about my political activities. I was left with no idea what I wanted to do, earning a wage by being a bus conductor, a biscuit factory labourer and a host of other similar short-term jobs. I thought I might want to try to get into Higher Education, but I had no idea how to do it.

The good luck was having a friend who was at Fircroft College the year before I attended. He told me about the college, his experiences there, and what it had to offer. I had other friends who gave me the confidence to apply, and a Local Education Authority who were willing to give me a grant to fund my studies there for a year. And so, in September 1968, at the age of twenty, I arrived with my suitcase in Birmingham, caught a bus to Selly Oak, and made my way down the drive to take up residence at Fircroft.

What was life at Fircroft like when you were a student?

It was a strange combination: part education establishment; part political finishing school; and part monastery. Each day would start with a collective meeting of staff and students and a morning twenty or so minute reading and discussion. The subjects for these were chosen and presented by individual students, and they could be on anything. Some would feature literature, some philosophy, some politics, some the arts. I remember one of mine was on the influence of modern pop music (this was 1968 after all), and I can still recall the  sound of Thunderclap Newman’s Something In The Air echoing around a hall full of rather bemused students and staff! In addition to these relatively short morning presentations, each student was required to prepare one major lecture - a one hour lecture followed by one hour of discussion I seem to recall - which again was presented to to assembled students and staff. I think mine was on the decline of the textile industry, but I can remember very little about it.

Alongside these presentations there was a programme of small group classes in subjects such as politics, philosophy, literature, history, and economics. There were no exams, as such, but regular essays and projects had to be completed.

As a counterbalance to the academic aspects of life at Fircroft, there were a variety of other tasks that had to be completed. An afternoon a week had to be spent gardening (I have already written about this in my piece about Bert The Gardener), and there was a rota in place for students to serve at mealtime and wash-up afterwards. There were visits to other colleges, outings to historic buildings, and guest speakers coming into the college. 

And there were walks to the pub! Fircroft was Cadbury land and alcohol was not permitted in any form. There was a coffee bar at the college (again this was run by students), but for anything more intoxicating you had to walk almost a mile to the nearest pub. The memory of the walk back from this establishment (oh, what was it called?), well refreshed, singing from memory all the verses of Dylan’s Mr Tambourine Man, is still one of my most abiding memories of life at Fircroft.

What did you learn at Fircroft? 

So many, many things … here are just a few examples:

  • It is never too late:  I learnt not to believe people who suggested that it was too late to do something, whether that was study, go to university, change career or make an impact on the world around you. Everyone develops in different ways and at a different pace. If you had offered my the option of studying 17th century philosophy or 19th century literature a few years earlier I would have run a mile, but by the time I got to Fircroft I was ready for it, ready to experience it, ready to learn from it. For some, that  time came when they were thirty, or fifty, or seventy, or whatever …. it is never too late.

  • Don’t read books - interact with them?: I came from a household where there were just a handful of books - a one volume encyclopaedia, an illustrated history of the Great War, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. Such books were treated with a degree of reverence: they stood on a shelf where the neighbours could see them, they might be taken down occasionally and consulted for wisdom. And then I went to Fircroft armed with my copy of Thomas Hobbe’s Leviathan (we were advised to bring a copy with us). The Principle conducted an entire term’s course on that single book, during which we were encouraged to make notes in the margins, underline passages, and scrawl our thoughts on half blank pages. “A pristine book is a pointless book”, he would say.

  • Delight in the ideas of others, but never be afraid to question them: By the time I went to Fircroft I already had a full set of prophets - there was Marx, Mao, Kier Hardie, Donovan  and Dylan. I consumed their views with almost religious enthusiasm and was in danger of becoming a blinkered disciple of a second-hand ideology. Fircroft taught me to question everything, even those beliefs you assumed were fundamental. Never be afraid to change your mind; and equally, never be afraid to renew your faith - whatever that might be.

  • Skills can be learnt: So much about formal education is just a matter of skills, and such skills can be learnt. When I went to Fircroft I had little idea of how to set out my thoughts and ideas on paper, how to construct a coherent sentence, how to write a simple essay, Fircroft taught me a set of skills, and the acquisition of such skills gave me the confidence to move on to Higher Education.

  • I am not a gardener: Fircroft put me off gardening for life - a small price to pay for all the positives.

What was your biggest achievement at Fircroft?

 Discovering I had the ability to survive. That is not the academic ability - I have no more of that than most folk - but the ability to survive difficulties, face up to problems, accept I have limitations, and still come through the experience. I left my 

home behind, my friends behind and my comfort zone behind, and still came through. 

I also discovered that I could not just take photographs, I could write as well. I was one of the three joint editors of the Fircroft student magazine - which went under the unforgettable title of “The Firker”, along with a world-weary Fleet Street journalist and a beat poet who had lost his beat. 

I also discovered that others thought I might be able to survive the transition to university education, and before the end of my year at Fircroft I was offered an unconditional place at Keele University.

What is the best piece of advice you could give to students today?

Educational opportunity is not like a bus that comes down the road once, and never again. Thanks to institutions like Fircroft it is a reasonably regular service and it is up to you to decide when you are best able to take advantage of it. And once you board that bus, don’t think of it simply as a means to an end - a better job, more money, whatever - try your best to enjoy the ride as well. Enjoy your studies; enjoy your success; enjoy your walks back from the pub singing 

Bob Dylan songs. Enjoy everything about it ….. even the gardening!

Want to study with Fircroft but not sure where to start? Attend one of our Open Days. After all, we offer learning that changes lives. 

If you want to chat through your options, call our Admissions team on 0121 472 0116 or contact us here for more information.