A multi-talented social campaigner, politician, innovator, entrepreneur and visionary, Michael Young’s work has touched the lives of many people.

Setting up the National Extension College (NEC) in 1963, along with co-founder Brian Jackson, Young’s vision was to provide a second-chance at education for adults whose lives had been disrupted during the Second World War, and who wanted to study for qualifications such as A levels and O levels.

‘Open to experiment’

The need was to provide flexible learning so people could study in their own time, at their own pace, wherever and whenever they wanted to. Michael said this education was “open to people, places, methods and ideas” and “open to experiment”.

Early initiatives were NEC’s ‘After school English’ course with a corresponding BBC radio programme, and the ‘Gateway’ courses that ran alongside programmes on BBC television. Those successful experiments led directly to the creation of the Open University in 1969.

For many years, it ran correspondence courses, which relied on the post. In fact, the 10-week postal strike of 1971 nearly resulted in closure. Now, the core student audience, and the ways in which learning is delivered, have changed. Offering online distance learning, the NEC doesn’t run face-to-face courses in a building. Nor, as a charity, does it receive any government or public sector funding. Yet the NEC provides opportunities to learn for a broad range of people, including those looking to increase their social mobility. Some are experiencing issues that have an adverse affect on their ability to engage in more traditional, mainstream, education settings, such as a mental health issue. And a growing number of younger students are enrolling, as parents and guardians seek to home-school, and schools look to enhance their curricula.

“When Michael Young set up the National Extension College in the 1960s, the aim was to support adults – mostly people aged 25 to 45 – who had missed out in school or college,” says NEC’s Chief Executive, Esther Chesterman. “But over the past five years or more there has been a change. Our students are now mostly in the 18 to 24 age bracket, with an increasing number of under 18s. Instead of providing for the needs of a post-war generation, we are now working with post-Covid learners who have experienced disruption  in their education.”

An important part of the service is a dedicated pastoral officer, and extra support for students of all ages – because, says Esther, “many say their school or college lacks the resources to effectively provide the support they need. They want to be able to learn at their own pace at home and create their own social environment.”

The NEC can therefore supplement school or college education, or enable students suffering from a chronic illness, a breakdown, or time spent in custodial care to study at home, in hospital or maybe in prison. 

Success stories

Michael Young’s vision was to see education as the catalyst of social mobility. During the 1960s and 1970s, when higher education was free and homes more affordable, the opportunities to climb the career ladder were more easily available to people prepared to put in the work. NEC’s former Chief Executive, Dr Ros Morpeth OBE, is one example; she left school with no A-levels, studied at evening classes, and got into Cambridge University as a mature student in the early 1970s. Ski jumper Michael (‘Eddie the Eagle’) Edwards is another. He studied for an A-level in law with the NEC and went on to university. And the comedian Russell Kane studied A-level Sociology with the NEC in the evening while living with his grandmother in her housing association flat and working in a store during the day. Today, Advocating for widening participation, the Russell Kane Scholarship with NEC now helps learners who need financial support.

Sadly, over the past 40 years social mobility has gone into reverse – and reports by the Sutton Trust, which supports young children from less advantaged backgrounds to access leading universities and careers, claim it is likely to get worse still, and that birth is the main determinant of success in life.

If Michael Young saw the state of our society today, he would be dismayed at the widening gulf between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. He would be deeply concerned about the narrowing of the curriculum and the decline in arts education in many cash-strapped state schools. He would be frustrated over the lack of new ideas amongst politicians to solve the social mobility problem.

In his book The Rise of the Meritocracy (published in 1958) – a satire on the development of a ruling elite – Michael presented a vision of a society in which the ‘meritocrats’ achieved success on merit through education. The book does not present a utopia. Instead it describes a class-bound society in which those holding power claim to be committed to equal opportunities, but where a disenfranchised underclass of people still exists. Today, this feels chillingly prophetic.

Yet Michael would be immensely proud that the NEC, the Open University, and many of his other creations are still providing second chance learning opportunities. Long may that last.

Photo by Giovanni Gagliardi on Unsplash


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