The History of Adult Learning Project in Edinburgh: A Freirean Approach

The Adult Learning Project (ALP for short) was founded in 1979 in Gorgie Dalry in Edinburgh, Scotland. It was an initiative of the South West Edinburgh Area Team of the Community Education Service of Lothian Regional Council, led by Fraser Patrick. ALP was initially funded for three years by an urban aid grant from the Scottish Office. As a result of ALP’s success, funding via urban aid was extended for a further three years, and funding was later taken over by Lothian Regional Council, and later by the City of Edinburgh Council.

Adult Learning Project

Traditionally adult education in Scotland was (and still is) based on the study of separate subjects or skills. The original idea for an adult learning project in Gorgie Dalry was that people should study the subjects and skills they wanted to study, incorporating a notion of local community control. However, before the urban aid application was submitted to the Scottish Office, Fraser Patrick decided instead to base ALP on a translation and adaptation of the ideas and methods of Paulo Freire.


This meant that ALP would involve people living in Gorgie Dalry in identifying the significant situations and concerns of their lives, codifying them in visual, auditory or written form, or some combination of these, decoding the codifications in groups and identifying the emerging themes. Programmes of learning would then be constructed based on these emerging themes, involving as many of the people of the area as possible. Once ALP was established, this process was indeed undertaken.

Table of Contents

The key methodological sequence of the approach developed was:

  • Say your own word

  • presentation by expert

  • dialogue


Coordinators led the learning programmes, and out of them came various action outcomes including community action programmes such as Play in the Terraces, and workshops like the Photo Workshop and the Writers Workshop. This sequence of initial investigation, codification and decoding, identification of themes, creation of learning programmes, leading on to action outcomes has been repeated throughout the life of ALP, and is one of its principal distinguishing features.


In Spain, adult education is usually connected with schools and government. But ALP is linked with community work and does not appear to depend exclusively on the City of Edinburgh Council. How does ALP work ?

In Scotland, adult education is provided by a variety of organisations funded directly or indirectly by local and/or central government. These include the Community Education Service (now called Community Learning and Development) of local councils; the Workers’ Educational Association (a nationwide voluntary organisation funded by local and central government); the Open University, and the Adult Continuing/Lifelong Learning departments of other Universities; the Colleges of Further Education (probably the biggest single provider in terms of volume; and also some private sector providers.


So in this sense the organisation and funding of adult education in Scotland is not unlike that in Spain. ALP itself, contrary to the impression given in your question, was founded by local government (Lothian Regional Council) and now forms a small part of the work of the Children and Families Department of the City of Edinburgh Council.


Paulo Freire
Paulo Freire

What makes ALP unique in Scotland as in Britain as a whole is that it is based on the ideas and methods of Paulo Freire. Attempts have been made to adopt a Freirean approach in other areas but they have not been successful in the longer run, although the work of ALP and the ideas of Freire have continued to be widely influential in many domains.


ALP includes a community work or perhaps we should say a community action dimension partly because of ALP’s commitment to engaged citizenship and action outcomes arising from learning programmes. And partly because it belongs to a modern tradition in radical adult education in Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland, which links adult education with community work/action/development.


ALP does in fact depend on the City of Edinburgh Council: the salaries of the workers, the office space, the equipment, the rooms and halls used for learning programmes and workshops are all provided by the council. But ALP also enjoys a great deal of autonomy and raises a lot of money through its ceilidhs and other events, which it uses to fund much of its learning and development work. And ALP has a crucial, vibrant dimension of student and teacher democracy: the ALP Association, which runs ALP. Every learning programme, workshop and action group has a representative on the ALP Association, and several times a year the members of all the groups meet, for conference and celebration, in the ALP Gaithrins. In addition, a number of ALP initiatives have led to the creation of independent, self-funded organisations such as the Scots Music Group.


In the ALP book, you devote many pages, including a glossary, to explaining Paulo Friere’s thought. What is the influence of Freire’s work and his ideas on ALP ?

ALP is grounded in the ideas and methods of Paulo Freire: his work is literally fundamental to the life of ALP. The ALP workers recurrently run courses on Freire’s ideas and practices, so that new people can continue to learn about his work. When new tutors are invited to lead learning groups in ALP, they are encouraged to read Freire’s books and the ALP book and to work dialogically.


But ALP is not slavishly devoted to a literal reading of Freire. It is constantly trying to adapt his ideas to the evolving context of local, Scottish, British and global society and culture. This involves reinventing his ideas in flexible and imaginative ways, and supporting cultural exchanges with projects in other countries such as South Africa, Ireland, Portugal and Brittany in France.


The best way to understand the influence of Freire on ALP is to read the new Castilian and Valencian translations of the ALP book, including the new chapter seven, written by Vernon Galloway, Stan Reeves and Nancy Somerville, which brings the story of ALP up to date. A second edition of Living Adult Education: Freire in Scotland has just been published in English by Sense Publishers, in 2011. It includes a new preface by Jim Crowther and Ian Martin, as well as the updating chapter 7 referred to above.


Sometimes people involved in adult education and community work are unable to move on and make space for new people to come in. How has ALP managed to change and develop in this way ?

Stan Reeves
Stan Reeves

ALP has generated an unusual combination of continuity and change. In terms of key personnel, of the four original ALP workers, (Stan Reeves, Fiona McCall, Gerri Kirkwood, and Joan Bree), Fiona moved on after four years and is now a trainer and supervisor of counsellors. Gerri moved after ten years to become Assistant Principal of a Community High School. Joan moved after twenty years to become an administrator in a larger voluntary organization.


Stan Reeves has continued to work in ALP from 1979 until today. He has been a constant source of inspiration, reinvention and renewal of ALP, partly because of his charismatic and dialogical personality, partly because he has always sought and welcomed involvement from new people, partly because he has always sought and welcomed involvement from new people, partly because he generates imaginative new applications of Freire’s basic assumptions, and partly because as well as being an outstanding adult educator he is also a practising musician (he plays the accordion and other instruments) and a leading figure in the current revival of Scottish traditional music.


This combination of continuity, change and renewal has encouraged many other creative figures to come in and make their mark in ALP. Another factor is ALP’s commitment to outward looking social and democratic involvement. This applies not only within the project has enabled ALP to make generative links with the women’s movement, the community land and ecological movements, refugee organizations, and contemporary writing, photography, music and political movements. In Jock Sutherland’s sense, ALP is an open system.

Some of the people living in Edinburgh and involved in ALP are immigrants. What work is ALP doing in collaboration with immigrants ? What are the challenges for adult education with immigrants ?

ALP workers and learner/activists have always been aware that, as Galloway, Reeves and Somerville have argued, the theme of culture would have to take on a multicultural dimension. Throughout the life of ALP they have collaborated with a variety of immigrant groups including people from Asia, the Middle East, the former Soviet Union, Latin America and eastern and middle Europe. They have worked closely with the Scottish Refugee Council, and it was in the course of this collaboration that ALP evolved an effective and popular model of cross-cultural working called The Welcoming, which is described in the new chapter of the ALP book.


A key challenge of working with immigrants is to achieve practical and dialogical ways of bridging gaps of language and culture. This is done through weekly encounters between local community learner activists and recently arrived immigrants and asylum seekers, including sharing a meal, discussing contemporary situations in Scotland and in the countries of origin of the asylum seekers and immigrants, language classes in English for speakers of other languages, and celebratory cross-cultural performances of music and dancing.


Intercultural links

One of the learning programmes in the ALP book is entitled On Being Scottish. In a globalising world, what is the role of adult education in helping people to recover, maintain and develop their own identity ?

The acceleration of technological development, whether in the field of information and communication technologies, or technologies of transport, armaments, and the production, packaging and distribution of food, is one of the principal drivers of the globalising trend.


Other factors include the widespread adoption of the assumption that economic growth is a permanent necessity, the development of an increasingly reckless global finance industry, and the deliberate encouragement of inequality and the exploitation of low paid workers in increasingly under regulated ‘free’ markets. Setting these socio-techno-economic features against a broader backcloth of the arrogance of some aspects of science and the disparagement of religion helps us to understand why trends of deracination, individualism narcissism, hedonism and celebritism are running rampant.


The distinction between descriptive and normative discourses (that is, between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ statements) is being eroded, and – in the higher echelons of society – ethics is being reinvented on the basis of a combination of merely statistical norms on the one hand and power manoeuvres by dominant elites on the other.


A view of society as a kind of rational machine driven by wealth creation and the pleasure principle is gaining ground, and the recognition of the significance of the personal, the communal and the traditional is being squeezed out, to be replaced by a combination of George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World.


In such a context it is tempting to conceptualize the task of adult education in terms of the recovery of personal, social and national identity, but while this is part of the task, it is not the whole of it. Identity is vital to human beings, but identity is meaningful as an integral part of a culture in which notions o f the personal, of persons in community, and of the just and good society which supports of well being and flourishing of all its members, are convincingly embedded as practices and aspirations.


This is the process of liberation to which Paulo Freire’s ideas and practices summon us, the utopia towards which they point, which we reaffirm and seek to constitute in our practice of adult education. In short, identity has always being a central component of the work of ALP but not the whole of it. Without the affirmation and search for social justice and the denunciation of exploitation and manipulation, locally, nationally and globally, it becomes separated from its roots.

One of the European Union’s fetish words is citizenship. How does ALP help people to become citizens ? How can adult education in general encourage people to exercise citizenship ?

These questions are important and invite an extended essay which we are not in a position to undertake at present! Instead we will attempt to outline briefly what might be a Freirean/personalist position on citizenship. Freire postulates that human beings are persons, to be regarded as subjects who know and act, rather than objects which are known and acted upon. His view of education is that our engagement as subjects with the significant situations and concerns of our lives is fundamental, not incidental. We cannot do this on our own, but together as personas in relation.


Freire is aware of the danger of what he calls massification: people are not to be manipulated or treated as stage armies. He takes a very specific view of political leadership. He admires strong, principled, visionary leaders who are fighting to create the good society and who engage with oppressed people as persons involved in a struggle for liberation. he includes among such leaders Antonio Gramsci, Fidel Castro, and Amilcar Cabral. he also admired Mao Tse Tung and Julius Nyerere. With the benefit of hindsight, we can question some of his choices, but the principles underlying his position are clear.


Freire also makes a valuable distinction between the popular and the populist. For him, the term ‘popular’ means ‘of the people’ in a genuine sense. He talks about ‘popular power’ and ‘popular knowledge’. The ‘populist’, on the other hand, is a quality of the attitude and behaviour of leaders who, as Freire puts it, shuttle back and forth between the elites and the people, who use popular images, ideas and values to manipulate people, thus objectifying them.


It is against this background of assumptions that we can approach an understanding of a Freirean view of citizenship. Citizenship derives from the Latin words ‘civis’, meaning citizen, and ‘civitas’, meaning the body of citizens in a city or other significant settlement or community. It refers to modern times to the rights and responsibilities of free people in a state. Historically it can be linked to the concept of democracy in the Greek city state, to the experience of citizens of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and more recently those of liberal, social and so-called people’s democracies.


These considerations encapsulate the potential and also the limitations of the concept of citizenship. its potential is to value and entrench the contributions of each and every person in a society. Its limitations derive from the extent to which it is associated with the exercise of political power by politicians in any society. Too often in liberal, social and people’s democracies, the deployment of the rhetoric of citizenship has been associated with pressures exerted on citizens by politicians or demagogues in relation to objectives of dubious value imposed from above.


It was in response to such considerations that the early Christians tried to formulate ways of combining citizenship with Christianity. The idea of being simultaneously a citizen of Rome and a Christian was intended to enable Christians to withstand political manipulation without becoming merely oppositional. Friere’s work can be seen as a modern extension of this tradition. Citizenship is important for Freire, but he sees the citizen as a person, and the ‘civitas’ as a body of persons in relation or persons in community. This view of citizenship places the role of the person-as-citizen at the heart of Freirean pedagogy, seeking to insulate it (ethically but not experientially) from the impact of manipulation and demagoguery, without devaluing genuine leadership.


The emerging themes, the meaningful thematics, of any Freirean learning programme derive not from the current priorities of national governments or the European Union, although these may be powerfully influential. But it is open to all such bodies to align themselves with and resource programmes of education based on a Freirean perspective. It is not a matter of being ‘in and against the state’ but of being simultaneously inside and beyond the state. It is in this sense that adult education can encourage and support citizenship. ALP programmes of learning encourage citizenship unlimited by, in the sense of going beyond, narrowly political considerations.


For me, one of the most important and interesting aspects of the ALP book is the connection between adult education and community work. What is the key to this connection ?

When Scottish readers began to engage with Freire’s writings (particularly Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Cultural Action for Freedom) in the 1970s, we were particularly impressed by Freire’s notion that learning programmes were not ends in themselves for the sake of study alone, but parts of a process of engaging persons as citizens in reflective action in the communities in which they lived and worked. This was what so impressed us about his early work in Recife and Pernambuco in north east Brazil. The educational work had outcomes in terms of cultural action both to celebrate the way of life of the people and to address specific existential problems and injustices in their circumstances through reflective popular action.


In Britain as a whole, and specifically in Scotland, we were familiar with the theory of community development applied in the British Empire as many of its constituent peoples struggled to achieve political independence. Some of us had been employed as community workers on community development projects in so-called areas of deprivation, funded by central and local government or by voluntary agencies. And others had been involved n autonomous community action in inner cities and peripheral housing schemes throughout the UK. One of the major criticisms of community development and community action was that such phenomena confined their concerns to geographically circumscribed areas as if the problems originated and could be solved there.

Poverty Economics

Contrary to this view, it was argued that while community and community action were important values, questions of poverty, deprivation and alienation were not caused by factors originating within circumscribed localities, but were the effects of social and economic relationships and values across society as a whole: local, regional, national and global. Nevertheless there was an acknowledgement that people live and form relationships in communities of place as well as communities of work and interest, and that all of these were appropriate starting points of learning, analysis and action.


In Freire’s writing we found explicit confirmation of our view that poverty and exploitation could not be understood with reference to circumscribed localities but in terms of larger totalities; but equally that this did not invalidate starting from where people live and work. For ALP, community action was a natural outcome of adult learning, and sometimes also, depending on the nature of the problem, an appropriate starting point for adult learning. Throughout the life of ALP, this has been the case, whether the learning and action takes place in a locality, at national level, or in a community of interest.


Some people say that Freire’s theory and methodology is only valid in the third world. How do you justify the translation and adaptation of Friere’s work in a first world setting by ALP ?

Paulo Freire in his writings always respects the particularity and uniqueness of every community, every language, every culture. Simply to carry over a practice from one society or culture into another and implement it there is likely to involve processes of imposition, which he describes as cultural invasion. But that does not mean that he believes in cultural apartheid! Ideas and practices generated in specific socio-cultural contexts have a kind of freedom: they can take off, fly away and land in many other – very different – socio-cultural contexts where they may unexpectedly put down roots and flourish in new forms.

Workers Education Association

What is important in such processes of geographical and cultural translocation is the dimension of translation into other languages, entailing processes of encounter, engagement, dialogue and connection-making. This can happen at both conscious and unconscious levels. In a fascinating interview with Sister Margaret Costigan published by the WEA in Scotland in 1982, Paulo Freire said: ‘you have the third world inside you’. In such complex relationships, insights ideas and practices form one setting undergo adaptation and reinvention in the new setting.


Such were the processes that occurred in the course of the arrival of Freirean ideas in Scotland in the 1970s. We read Freire’s books. We struggled with the translation of certain concepts from Romance languages, and specifically form Brazilian Portuguese, into English. WE grappled with the application of Freire’s ideas and practices in our specific first world setting. In the course of these processes of engagement we realised that the Freirean synthesis was not purely Brazilian.


He had drawn together ideas from a whole spectrum of traditions and just about every corner of the globe, integrating and applying them in his own lived reality, his region of origin in the north east of Brazil. We realized also that no socio-cultural context is entirely sui generis or self-contained. Ideas and practices travel, translate, adapt, take root, co-habit, marry. The challenge for us in Scotland was to engage with, understand and adapt Freire in a Scottish situation. We found that it was possible, immensely refreshing, and generated enormous energy.


Paradoxically, it highlighted the underdeveloped nature of democracy in Scotland ! The ALP book and is update in chapter seer, tell the story of what happened from there. The main problem we faced was not popular resistance, but intellectual resistance in certain quarters, a kind of combination of first world cultural arrogance and unconscious racism. Indeed, one of us was asked in an interview for a job in a Scottish University by a British professor of education: why should we be interested in the ideas of a Brazilian adult educator ?


What in your opinion is the significance of adult education and literacy work in so-called developed and developing countries today ?

In one sense the power of education and the fundamental importance of literacy, that is, the development of the ability to master and make crucial use of a range of languages to name, know and act on the world will continue to be as significant as ever. What is changing rapidly is the technology of information and communication and other technologies, and their relationships to the exercise of power in the world. Alongside these changes and dynamically interacting with them are changes in the dominant values of society.


To begin with information technology: within the last fifty years we have witnessed the development and spread of such media as television, computers, mobile phones and the internet. These are being used to generate new means of manipulation, control and wealth by power elites everywhere across the globe. To give one important example, they have enabled those wielding political, economic and financial power to know with much greater accuracy what public opinion is and to follow its changes day by day, week by week, month by month. The power elites have learned how to follow the flows and eddies of opinion, and how to channel it, so that they can keep in tune with it and adapt their presentation, policies and practices in order to maximise their power, wealth and control.


This connects with current changes in dominant values. In the past several thousand years, which we might call the period of organized religion, certain values came to predominance. These included the ideas of love, compassion, forgiveness, cooperation, service, reverence for the whole of creation, the valuing of all forms of life, and respect for others as persons. They were accompanied by specific values associated with thought, language and action. The dominance of the idea of truth and truthfulness had as a universally accepted implication that, so far as practically possible, there should be a correspondence, a consistency, between what people thought, what they said or communicated, and what they did. This assumption has been significantly underlined.


There had, of course, also been other powerful values associated with coercion, deceit, dissimulation, cruelty and violence, but these were held in check to some extent by the countervailing power of the values associated with religion. The obvious example is the dialectical (and dialogical) relationship between Imperial Rome and the Christian religion.


In the 20th century, alongside the gradual decline of religion and the disastrous failure of Soviet and Chinese communism, we have seen the rise in the power of science and the development of the technologies it has generated. The old values promoted by religion have declined as religion itself has declined. Countervailing values have emerged including the notion of society as a rational machine and the dominance of the pleasure principle; the influence of relativism ( the notion that, since knowledge and values are determined by circumstances and preferences, with changed circumstances and preferences come changed values); and the influence of nihilism (the notion that since there are no fundamental or foundational values, all values and processes of arriving at values can be undermined: anything goes).


The notion of a distinction between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ statement sis also undermined by the same processes. The specific discourses associated with upholding and following good ways of life, and creating good societies are also undermine and replaced by scientific and technological advances which are held by many to be value free.


In the face of all this, there is no need to despair, but a need to hope, speak out and act in accordance with one’s conscience. We need to reaffirm and also reinvent the values previously associated with religion, and engage in dialogue with since and technology to re-stimulate the recognition of positive and negative values.


It is to this project that Paulo Freire’s ideas and practices make an immense contribution. Freire and the other personalist thinkers (John MacMurray, Martin Buber, Emanuel Mounier) are 20th century prophets for the 21st and succeeding centuries. We are entering a new era of encounter between the power of empire and the power of compassion. Freirean adult education and literacy work, conceived as cultural action for freedom, have a vital role to play in the reaffirmation of the good way of life and the struggle to create the good society.


This interview first appeared in Citizenship as Politics: International Perspectives from Adult Education (2009), edited by Emilio Lucio-Villegas and published by Sense Publishers. It was reprinted in The Persons in Relation Perspective: In Counselling, Psychotherapy and Community Adult Education in the chapter entitled Freirean Approaches to Citizenship: An Interview with Colin Kirkwood By Emilio Lucio-Villegas

Emilio Lucio-Villegas
Emilio Lucio-Villegas

Emilio Lucio-Villegas

Head of the Categra Paulo Freire

University of Seville, Spain