Vol 21.2. and 21.3

Willy Russell and Elaine Morgan: inspirational voices

David Law, Editor,


In reply to the question ‘Suggest how you would resolve the staging difficulties inherent in a production of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt’, you have written: ‘Do it on the radio’. …  I did think you might let me have a more considered essay. (Frank)

Yeah, well that’s all I could do in the time. We’ve been dead busy in the shop. (Rita)

Some colleagues of ‘a certain age’ will, like me, cherish the memory of Michael Caine’s character, in the film of Educating Rita, trying to come to terms with Rita, his ‘access student’, finding answers in unconventional ways. It makes me remember that education can be a battle ground where even well-meaning teachers place barriers across the pathways of those who have glimpsed the possibilities of learning (whether for its own sake or for career opportunity).

In Willy Russell’s play we hear Rita providing Frank with a pithy explanation: Ibsen thought of his script as a ‘play for voices’. Her justification for brevity follows: ‘I sort of encapsulated all me ideas into one line’.

Rita, played by Julie Walters in the film, is Frank’s student on an Open University course. She has to study at her workplace, a hairdressers; at home, Denny ‘gets narked’ when she is occupied with coursework. Willy Russell, the author of the hugely successful Educating Rita (1980), had also been a ladies’ hairdresser in Kirkby for several years. After that he was a ‘widening participation’ student before the term was invented. ‘In those days the idea of somebody of my age wanting to do O-levels and A-levels was anathema to the system … the idea of ‘return to learn’, continuing education, access courses … this was just not available’. (Desert Island Discs 23 January 1994; bbc.co.uk/radio4, accessed 4 November 2016)

Russell left school with one ‘O’ level in English Language. Eventually he became a school teacher after training at a college that, some years later, became part of the Liverpool Institute of Higher Education, now Liverpool Hope University. Educating Rita has been widely performed since 1980, most recently in a very successful revival in Belfast. It provides rich insights into how education can transform lives.

Russell, interviewed by the Liverpool Echo in 2015, spoke about ‘the universal search for something better’ and how he saw Rita as illustrating how, for many, education provides the pathway. (‘Playwright Willy Russell’s Knowsley roots celebrated in new film and exhibition’, Liverpool Echo 15 October 2015, accessed 4 November 2016) In 1994, as a ‘Desert Island Discs’ castaway, he spoke about how he wrote Educating Rita without realising how autobiographical it was. Fifteen years after the play was written, Russell took pride at having stimulated an awareness of the importance of access to higher education (HE). ‘Rita proved to be political in so much as it articulated and gave momentum to that whole movement of people returning to education; often working class, and often women’. In subsequent years, ‘Doing a Rita’ mapped a path for large numbers of WP students. (First broadcast on 23 January 1994.)

To access the full version of Perspectives vol. 21, please visit the Taylor and Francis website.

Willy Russell shows how liberating HE can be for somebody who never dreamt of going to university, and his play also speaks to possible torment and loss of identity. Another dramatist, the Welsh writer Elaine Morgan (1920–2013), also used her work to advocate educational opportunity. Morgan, from the Rhondda Valley, shared working class roots with Russell. However, with the Welsh winds behind her, she was able to pass the 11+ examination. Writing her autobiography, eight decades later, Elaine referred to the 11+ as ‘the great divide’ for generations of British children.

All the friends I knew from primary school went on to Mill Street Secondary, and I went on to the girls’ grammar school and entered an entirely new world. There were, I think, only four from the Rhondda ward … and we sat one behind the other … most of the other pupils came from more prosperous sectors [of Pontyrpidd]. They had better manners and much better accents. When it was time to pay dinner money on Fridays they went up to the desk … while the Rhondda lot sat tight, because dinners for children of the unemployed came free. (Morgan, 2012 Morgan, E. 2012. Knock ‘Em Cold, Kid. Matador: Kibworth Beauchamp., 23)

Nearly 30 years later the 11+ was still, when Willy Russell sat the examination, a barrier for most children and an early cul-de-sac. At the time, Willy did not mind that his immediate future did not lead to academic success. But Elaine passed nine O-levels, and was subsequently ‘entered for Oxford rather in the way that a promising horse is entered for the Grand National, without consulting the horse’ (40). For Elaine in the 1930s, ‘there were no role models from the girls’ schools’; for the boys ‘education was their best hope of not ending up down the pit’ (40).

To access the full version of Perspectives vol. 21, please visit the Taylor and Francis website.

In his reflections for ‘Desert Island Discs’, Willy said he was rather glad to have failed the 11+. ‘I don’t blame the school. I conspired with that’. Passing would have meant going to another school with a bunch of posh kids, failing meant ‘I could stay with my own kind’. It was much easier to go and play football in the park or to play the guitar at home. When, today, we see young white males from disadvantaged communities increasingly turning their backs on education we should look for answers not only in scholarly analysis but also in the autobiographies of people such as Elaine and Willy.

As writers, both Morgan and Russell found their voices and used them to argue for radical positions on a variety of issues. Both writers opposed the social conservatism that prescribed a ‘natural’ role for women although Elaine Morgan, in the two decades before she wrote her account of evolution, The Descent of Women (1972), generally accepted the restrictions placed on women. ‘In those days there was no way of “having it all” unless you were rich. … You couldn’t even be a teacher in an infants’ school without knowing that you would be instantly slung out if you got married’. Elaine’s view about social inequality and injustice was ‘on class lines, not on gender lines’ (100).

To access the full version of Perspectives vol. 21, please visit the Taylor and Francis website.

From Lady Margaret Hall, Elaine Morgan went to work, in September 1942, in adult education in Norfolk. In her autobiography she declares, in a way that will be familiar to anyone who has been involved with ‘Access to HE’ programmes: there was a particularly strong flavour of idealism in the prospect of delivering a chance of acquiring learning and culture to men and women who’d had to leave school early and regretted it. … the work … consisted of talking to people about things I was interested in for about forty minutes and then spending at least an equivalent amount of time listening to them and learning from their ideas and experiences. … nobody was there that didn’t want to be there. (51, 53)

In April 1945 Elaine married Morien Morgan, a veteran of the Spanish civil war. She describes him as a Marxist believer in equal rights, but with a reluctance to accept that this applied to his wife. From the time of her marriage until she became a successful author, Elaine’s major contribution to the domestic economy was through ‘the trade [housewife] that occupied the working lives of half the population’ (66). By her own admission, it did not come naturally to her.

To access the full version of Perspectives vol. 21, please visit the Taylor and Francis website.

At about the time that Willy Russell, whilst training as teacher, started to write plays, Elaine Morgan produced the work that made her name internationally. She relates its genesis as follows:

One day I came home with … The Naked Ape … [and then] Robert Ardrey’s African Genesis and The Hunting Hypothesis. … all deeply interesting, informative, well argued, written to be accessible to the general reader … [but] in the end … I felt this is all nonsense. (100)

Elaine came to the view that the books that she read about human evolution were really about adult males (less than half the human race).

There were a lot of questions that I wanted to ask. I felt sure that somebody would … write a book about it. … Then I got tired of waiting. I opened a brand new exercise book and wrote: The Descent of Women – Chapter One.

I wrote it all down, more or less without pausing for breath, unpacking my heart of a lot of things that I had been feeling and thinking … the scientific narratives brought in to replace the myth of the Garden of Eden bore the same hallmarks of having been concocted by males, for males, and about males. (103)

One of the authors that had the greatest subsequent impact on Morgan was Sir Alister Hardy, the first Professor of Zoology at the University of Hull from 1928 to 1942. After Hull, Hardy moved first to Aberdeen and then, in 1946, to the University of Oxford to become Linacre Professor of Zoology. In 1930, early in his career, he had come across an unanswered scientific question: why do humans, unlike all other land mammals, have fat attached to their skin? As a marine biologist, Hardy saw a link with the blubber of marine mammals. He began to suspect that humans had ancestors that were more aquatic than previously imagined.

Hardy kept his suspicions secret until 1960, when he ‘came out’ and laid the basis for what subsequently became known as the aquatic ape hypothesis. Morgan followed a brief reference in The Naked Ape to Hardy’s article, published in The New Scientist in the same month as he gave a talk at the British Sub-Aqua Club’s (sic!) Brighton conference to promote the idea of an aquatic phase in human evolution. Around 1970 Morgan contacted Sir Alister to see whether he would welcome public discussion of the ideas that had produced a storm of ‘intellectual’ protest a decade before. Elaine received encouragement and, after the publication of Descent of Women, she was congratulated by Hardy.

By her own later admission, Morgan’s first book on the subject was not the work of a scientist (and her position on evolution, as it developed over time, is still disputed by most scientists). However, some writers such as David Attenborough now do see merit in her hypothesis, as Robin McKie, science and technology editor of the London Observer describes (2013 McKie, R. 2013. “Big brains, no fur, sinuses … are these clues to our ancestors’ lives as aquatic apes?’ Observer, April 27). Briefly, the issue is about bipedalism (why, and how, apes on four legs evolved into humans on two). The generally accepted account is focussed on hunting and speed of movement. Those who argue for ‘an aquatic phase’ see the gradual adoption of an upright stance as necessary for survival on the shoreline (and for Elaine Morgan, necessary for mothers to carry children in aquatic environments).

Elaine Morgan’s autobiography, completed when she was 91, recalls the time nearly four decades earlier when The Descent of Women became a best-seller and the subject of TV talkshows in the USA: ‘it had been an exhilarating interlude’ (108). Now back to work! The BBC had discovered the ‘biopic’ and, as well as Maigret and Dr Finlay’s Casebook, there were dramatisations of How Green

Was My Valley, Testament of Youth, The Life and Times of David Lloyd George, The Diary of Anne Frank, and others.

Elaine was prompted to resume her work on evolution by impatient questioning, through letters written to her by Chuck Milliken, a retired US policeman. The wake-up call ‘finally became loud enough to induce me to take time off TV and write a little book’. The Aquatic Ape (1982 Morgan, E. 1982. The Aquatic Ape: A Theory of Human Evolution. London: Souvenir Press.) presented the theory as ‘a free-standing proposition, not mixed up with feminism or politics’ (115).

When her second book on evolution was published Elaine Morgan was 62, and still a successful scriptwriter for the BBC. However, her passion to understand evolution had led her to become a most remarkable auto-didact.

I would go anywhere to learn … [and then to] talk about it. … [a list of eighteen universities] And I wrote books. In 1990, aged seventy, I published ‘The Scars of Evolution’ and four years after that ‘The Descent of the Child’ and three years after that ‘The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis’. There were, later, two other books that publishers wouldn’t look at but I published them anyway. (118)

In 2009 she was awarded the OBE for services to literature and education. Her spirit is fully visible in the TED talk she gave when she was 88, her ‘swan song’ she calls it in her autobiography (125). (Filmed July 2009 at TEDGlobal 2009: Elaine Morgan, ‘I believe we evolved from aquatic apes’, http://www.ted.com/talks/elaine_morgan_says_we_evolved_from_aquatic_apes)

Let’s get back to ‘Educating Rita’. In her early life, Elaine was not ‘a Rita’. She had a family that believed in her and gave her every support. ‘On my first day at school I was startled to find that the local population outside [my home] … failed to recognise my right to be at the centre of the universe’ (14). Elaine had the encouragement of teachers at the grammar school: ‘there was a lot they wanted to teach me, and not much limit to what I wanted to know’ (32).

‘Rita’ and Elaine are connected by a passion for learning. Sir Alister Hardy wrote a foreword to Morgan’s second book on evolution (1982 Morgan, E. 1982. The Aquatic Ape: A Theory of Human Evolution. London: Souvenir Press). ‘[She]  …  was the first person to take my hypothesis really seriously … ’. He observed that ‘it is … surely remarkable that she should be making such a valuable contribution to the study of human evolution, both in its biological and anthropological aspects, when she has had no systematic training in either subject’. He added:

Some critics are almost bound to suggest that little notice need be taken of her views because of her amateur status: as a professional zoologist, I would point out that some of the greatest contributors to evolutionary theory had no academic training in biology. Without suggesting that Elaine Morgan is a second Darwin, I would remind them that Darwin himself abandoned his medical course at Edinburgh and took a pass degree in Theology at Cambridge, Alfred Russel Wallace began his career as a land surveyor and never went to a university at all, and Mendel entered a monastery at an early age.

Frequently it is enthusiasm that carries people forward to add to ‘knowledge’ – and, as a pre-requisite, to their own knowledge. Willy Russell, in an interview with a journalist a couple of years ago, spoke of the many people, particularly women, who have told him down the years that it was after seeing Educating Rita that they set about achieving their own education. ‘I always say to them: you would have done it anyway’ (Laura Barnett, Tuesday 17 February 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2015/feb/17/julie-walters-willy-russell-how-we-made-educating-rita, accessed 4 November 2016.).11. Another excellent example of enthusiasm as the basis for discovery is the archaeologist Stuart Wilson. He started young. Aged 11, on a dig at Trostrey in Monmouthshire, he found a passion that took him later to the University of York to study the subject. Not long out of university, he decided to purchase a field for £32,000 (from savings and a loan). The reason: Wilson had heard that medieval pottery was discovered in molehills. He was looking for Trellech, not the modern village but the medieval city, five miles from Monmouth. For the last decade Stuart Wilson has devoted his time mainly to uncovering the remains of a city that was once a quarter the size of contemporary London, leading hundreds of volunteers who are also motivated by a passion for discovery. He expects the ‘lost city of Trellech’ to be his life’s work.http://archive.archaeology.org/0609/etc/conversations.html Volume 59 Number 5, September/October 2006 Archaeology Magazine, a Publication of the Archaeological Institute of America; http://www.monmouthshireantiquarianassociation.org/members-page (2016); www.lostcityoftrellech.co.uk; all accessed on 5 January 2017.

Readers of the pieces collected here will find articles by practitioners and academics on what is variously called ‘access to higher education (HE)’ or ‘widening participation’ (WP). The collection covers pre-HE pathways to admission, support for WP students, and their prospects following graduation.

Jon Rainford, once a secondary school teacher in the UK, argues that ‘those in most need of support to access and succeed in HE may still be being missed through selective targeting’. The focus of this piece is on a case study and the argument is that the access policies of this elite institution have the result of ‘ensuring that students already on a path to HE choose this institution in preference to others’.

Australia, as discussed by a Perspectives article we published in 2015 Wellings, P. 2015. “The Architecture and the Plumbing: What Features Do the Higher Education Systems in the UK and Australia Have in Common?” Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education 19 (3): 71–78.[Taylor & Francis Online], (Wellings), shares many features of university management with the UK and access to undergraduate education is among them. Mahsood Shah and Robert Whannell argue that Australian universities risk jeopardising quality and standards by the way in which they have run ‘open access’ courses. In that country such courses ‘are not regulated and not a part of the Australian Qualifications Framework’. Unlike the UK there is no external accreditation.

Julie Farmer, who worked for five years at the UK Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), retired as the QAA Head of Access in 2016. Her article provides both a historical background to the evolution of the Access to HE Diploma in England and Wales, and presents data to show that this qualification, regulated through the work of the QAA, has made a significant contribution to WP in HE. However, cuts in budgets to support mature students and the increasing cost of HE place in jeopardy the work of the last 40 years.

Ruth Childs, Mark Hanson, Sandra Carnegie-Douglas and Alexis Archbold, all at the University of Toronto in Canada, write about a project in their university that reviewed barriers to participation in initial teacher education. In a way that will surely be helpful to practitioners in UK HE they situate the project in a modelling context of change management. They challenge practitioners to reflect on the assumptions they make when developing access initiatives.

Neil Harrison and Richard Waller, both at the University of the West of England, write here about using a ‘realist “small steps” approach’. They too advocate using a theory of change. They are very sceptical about government initiatives where ‘targets can just as easily be met by … recruitment activities as those designed to challenge educational inequalities’.

Kevin Click, Leesa Huang and Linda Kline, all at the Psychology Department at California State University (Chico), researched ‘the relationship between academic achievement, academic attainment and various dimensions of well-being’. Their study is particularly concerned with students at risk of non-completion. We hope that all readers will see that the task of those who have committed to access initiatives is not just to widen participation at the point of entry to HE but also to secure the engagement of all learners through the academic programme and to achieve successful outcomes.

Anna Mountford-Zimdars, and her colleagues, writes about successful completion from the point of view that access initiatives must be judged in the context of the ‘whole student lifecycle’. The authors begin with a succinct quote from an US academic, Vincent Tinto: ‘access without support is not opportunity’, and conclude with eighteen points that universities ‘might want to consider’. Many institutions will be doing these things already. All HE providers should be encouraged to review whether their student support services provide effectively for the needs of those who most need support.

Richard Budd, Lecturer in Education Studies at Liverpool Hope University, concludes this collection with a synoptic essay that covers how WP students remain ‘hindered’ not just in accessing HE but also during, and after, first degree programmes. His final point: getting into university is not a guarantee of success. After graduation there is ‘an employability arms race that WP students will always be relatively ill equipped to win’.

The work collected here is, surely, underpinned by a respect for the enthusiasm that ‘Rita’ brings to her ‘second chance’ education, and without it she would go under. Think of her when you face a difficult discussion with those who want to cut back on resources available to WP. We may find that WP poses challenges to institutions. Just think of the challenges faced by ‘Rita’.

Finally, I would like to acknowledge, very gratefully, Professor Nick Foskett’s assistance with this collection. Planning for this issue began when Professor Foskett was Vice-Chancellor at Keele University. His advice and commentary on several of the articles was very helpful.