My Learning Relation: Attila the Nun (object no.172)

Learning Relations bookA few posts ago I featured the books written by a family friend, so here is another book written by a member of our extended family. The author gave me a copy some years ago, but I donated it to the library I managed at that time, an academic department library which included education and psychology amongst its specialist subjects. I had not read it, and, wanting to write about this person, I recently obtained another copy from an online bookseller. This one was withdrawn from Durham University’s education library and has been well-read. Having now read it myself, I can see why. It is a fascinating read, and the perfect object to illustrate the remarkable life of my Dad’s cousin Doreen Grant.

Doreen has made a previous appearance on this blog: she was the one who organised the great Grant Family Gathering in Glasgow in 2008. The youngest of 5 daughters born to my grandmother Alice’s brother John Grant and his wife Jessie in 1927, Doreen was adored by the whole family. Like most of my grandmother’s side of the family, they were devout Catholics, none more so than young Doreen. By the time she reached her teens she was convinced of her calling, and eventually took up orders with the Sisters of Notre Dame. When I visited her in the nuns’ retirement home in Glasgow a few years ago, she recalled that time in her life and how certain she was, never once having faltered in her faith or her certainty in her vocation. I remember her visiting our house when I was a child, in her brown habit and veil, and being struck by her vivacious spirit, nothing like the popular portrayal of nuns as stern and severe martinets.

Doreen, who still lives, but sadly now under the heavy cloud of Alzheimer’s disease, was a real force of nature. As she writes in the first chapter of her book:

“I had begun my teaching career after the war in the then notorious Gorbals area of Glasgow. My twentieth birthday was spent trying to make some meaningful impact on a class of fifty-two squirming six-year-olds there. By Christmas of that year I was visiting the homes of all the pupils who had been absent from the class Christmas party. With small ribboned serviettes of festive food I trudged up and down tenement buildings on that dark winter’s evening after school. I was so intent on making sure no children missed their buns that I thought nothing of my surroundings, until one mother exclaimed upon opening the door, ‘Oh Miss, you shouldn’t be here!…See the teacher down to the main road, Wullie!’

What new world had I strayed into? What was so unsuitable about this environment that I had to be escorted quickly out of it? Certainly the tenement was like something out of Dickens with its worn stone stairs lit only by tiny gas lamps. Many of the two-roomed flats, served by communal toilets on the landings of the public stairs, were subdivided into ‘single-ends’ in which entire families ate, slept and lived their whole lives. But was the source of distress completely the building and its lack of amenities, or were there other ways in which a teacher did not match this home setting?

I was facing fundamental differences here between home and school. Even at twenty I could feel vaguely that these were differences in expectations, in the meaning of learning and eventually of life. This mismatch had a greater effect on children’s education than the poor physical environment and would not be removed merely by building huge housing estates around the city. Awareness of this dissonance was to be heightened in the following years by joining the Sisters of Notre Dame, a religious congregation concerned with education and social justice.”

Not for Doreen the quiet life of the cloistered community, protected from the harshness of the outside world. She had joined an order that applied faith in active service, and continued her teaching career, eventually becoming  head of a secondary modern school in Speke housing estate in 1960s Liverpool. Her innovative work there earned her a CBE, but Doreen, never one to rest on her laurels, wanted to address the issue that troubled her most: why so many evidently able pupils failed to thrive at school despite the best efforts of herself and the teachers. “Wilful or biddable, truants or attenders, some pupils remained outside the circle of my enthusiasm. I began to have doubts about the omnipotence of school. So I left my headship and returned to full-time study in search of a solution.”

Doreen spent the next 10 years studying at London, Liverpool, and Glasgow universities, attaining her PhD from the latter in 1974. What she had learned from the work of luminaries such as Jerome Bruner, Margaret Donaldson and Paolo Freire eventually led her back to the Gorbals tenements to explore the link, or lack of it, between home, family  and school in one of the most underprivileged communities. “Wine alley”, as it was known locally, was “not an alley, but a small stigmatised housing estate, broken in both appearance and spirit.” With the sheer force of her personality (and a different sort of ‘grant’ from the Urban Aid fund) Doreen managed to win over parents’ inherent suspicion of authority,  and established “stairhead seminars” in an empty flat, where a group of parents from the estate would meet to discuss their children’s education. Their initial reluctance gradually gave way to enthusiastic participation in workshops and activities that they repeated later with their children, with immediate improvements in the lives of both. Women felt empowered and involved in their children’s learning for the first time, many developing the confidence to speak to school and other professionals as equals.

My librarian’s heart lifted when I read on p. 35 that “Glasgow’s Library Department had generously co-operated with us in setting up a small well-stocked library in the flat.” One of the mothers whom Doreen had struggled to engage in the programme became its most enthusiastic volunteer helper, finally finding her voice along with her natural aptitude for the work:

“In 1979 when Urban Aid ended Alice became a permanent paid assistant and by 1982 she was in complete charge of book issuing in the library which had been moved to the heart of Summertown, a new neighbourhood centre housed in a former school…Alice gradually found how to relate her shy unassuming personality to the advancement of learning. Until her death in 1987 she could be found among the encyclopedias, paperbacks, and pre-readers, presenting to all who crossed the library threshold a reassuring, friendly, local face.”

From the humble beginnings of the stairhead seminars Doreen managed to coax the local authority into giving them the use of a disused school building as a community education centre. The whole community gradually got involved in putting on shows and pantomimes, relishing their roles. So successful was this community pantomime that in later years a youth group performed it at the Edinburgh Fringe. Other activities evolved: Family Nights with craft activities for parents and children to learn together, leadership training courses, educational day trips. Throughout the book Doreen is refreshingly respectful towards the community she is working with, and insists that she learned as much from them as they from her. In turn she earned their respect and trust, and the project was so successful it attracted attention from the local press and TV:

Learning relations p.81

…which in turn invites opposition from the local education authority officials, whose noses have been put severely out of joint by this troublesome nun. When the library is threatened with closure the community come out in force, speaking powerfully at council meetings, and winning a reprieve. For most people it is their first brush with officialdom; one mother reports back “We’ve never seen people so high up interested in weans. I thought people like that didnae want to know us, we were just a bit of dirt. They’ve got money – we’re nothing. But I got found oot wrong there. They were really interested.”

So the project is not lost, but Doreen still has numerous battles to fight with the authorities, and observes with wry wisdom:

“Throughout western society the bureaucrats, segregated from practitioners, are chained to enormous systems which regulate all the society’s major decisions. I constantly failed to grasp this limiting factor. My personal life is lived in the company of women who express obedience through informed consensus and so I find autocracy incomprehensible. Bureaucratic decision makers, focused on order and control, found my ideal of an educational milieu based on free co-operation quite inconceivable. I had embarked on a collision course.”

She remains undaunted, however. At one point she organises a conference and wishes to invite American academic Dr David Weikart, whose work in Michigan had influenced her own. When the council refuse to provide a budget for his fee and hospitality, Doreen gets around the problem by offering him free accommodation at the convent if he will deliver his lecture free of charge – which he accepts. When she is forbidden to travel to the Hague to present an application for funds to the Bernard van Leer Foundation, she goes anyway – and wins a grant of £250,000, a fortune now, let alone in the 1980s.  Rather than being congratulated, however:

“I was subjected to a formal warning on my successful return. It all provided laughter at ‘behind the scenes’ meetings where I was nicknamed ‘Boadicea” – when it was not ‘Attila the Nun’! One official had felt the only way left for him to stop my flying to Holland was to ‘Declare a state of emergency and close the airport.’ Another’s after-dinner tale was, ‘I took disciplinary action against her and she said, ‘Thank you. Now get on with administering the small fortune I obtained.’ The reality was very different from their jokes. I was angered and upset by the whole unpleasant procedure which smacked of male chauvinism.”

Ultimately the project was taken under the wing of the local education department, and Doreen, no longer directly involved, wrote up the experience as Learning Relations, published by Routledge in 1989 – and reissued in 2014 as a Routledge Revival. It is rightly considered a classic in its field, brilliantly written, with the passionate spark of its author as evident on the page as in person. I am struck by the parallels between her convictions and the socialist politics of my parents, and with feminism. My Dad had left the Catholic church when he turned to Communism as a  young man, and Doreen expressed her sadness at this in some letters which I have in the archives. In one written following his father’s funeral in 1972, she is deeply sad that he was unable to take communion with his brothers. In another, written a few years later, she says:

“I’d love to keep in touch with you James, and with Eleanor. We don’t have any rules and regulations about correspondence these days. But I’m not good at it! I’m much better at talking – and much more keen on it – than putting thoughts to paper.
I do agree with you about the need to accept people with different values and try to work together to build the future. I think there is quite a fruitful Christian-Marxist dialogue going on. I read odd articles about it.”

Doreen is doing herself a disservice here: she writes very well. Every Christmas we would receive a beautifully presented summary of her year’s activities, showing the desktop publishing skills she learned in her 70s that put me to shame.

Doreen's lettersIn her 2013 letter, at the age of 86, she is astonished to learn of the Routledge Revival reprint of her book: “Just when I am old, the ideas in the book seem to be new!” In 2012, she features the annual reunion lunch of the people she worked with during the Learning Relations project. Most people who have met Doreen over the years have stayed in touch, along with her adoring extended family. The Grant Gathering features in her 2007 newsletter, with photographs of my brother and niece 1:
2007 newsletterI am full of admiration for my Dad’s cousin, as I know he was. She has achieved so much in her long life, and done much more for society’s most disadvantaged than have many of us with more conventional lives. Tomorrow we face a general election and, like many people I am hoping for a change of government and a return to the more compassionate social values in which I was raised. In today’s deeply troubled times we need fewer bureaucrats and more true activists like Doreen.

Attila the Nun, you are a Right On Sister. I salute you.

Doreen aged 80 in 2007

Doreen aged 80 in 2007


About Hoarder of Babylon

A chartered librarian and curator of my family archives.
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