Brian Groombridge was an extraordinary and imaginative adult educator

17 July 2015

Brian Groombridge was an extraordinary and imaginative adult educator.  His experience spanned an unusually comprehensive range of roles as a student, tutor, programme organiser, centre principal, researcher, broadcaster, communication pioneer, academic and, in retirement, active citizen. His career included time as a researcher and later as deputy secretary of NIAE, where he worked with Edward Hutchinson to put the education of older people on the national agenda and researched and wrote the policy paper “Education and Retirement”. On his return to NIAE he was a member of the planning committee that preceded the launch of the Open University, and of the Russell Committee that did so much to put educational opportunities for marginalised groups on the agenda.

Brian’s adult education career before NIAE, started with creative periods as warden/principal of two independent adult education centres—at Letchworth Settlement and at Percival Guildhouse in Rugby – before moving to the National Institute as a researcher. After a period of consumer affairs research (including the educational use of public libraries), he returned to NIAE as deputy secretary, building bridges with providers across the system. He combined that with freelance educational broadcasting, and was then appointed head of Educational Services of the Independent Broadcasting Authority.

I met him first when he was head of Educational Program Services of the Independent Broadcasting Authority, where he oversaw a flowering of public service programming in the fifteen Independent Televsion Companies, along with the development of a network of community education officers, and the groundbreaking educational innovations Naomi Sargant brought to educational broadcasting with the opening of Channel 4. Brian thought broadcasting was especially important because it engaged audiences who found attending classes inhibiting and forbidding. His international work helped to shape the European Broadcasting Union’s adult education programming, through which he was able to develop close links with Finnish university adult education; the University of Helsinki awarded him an honorary degree.

He moved in 1976 from the IBA to take up the role of professor of Adult Education and director of the Department of Extra-Mural Studies at the University of London, merging its work in time with that of Birkbeck College. In the role he was responsible for the largest extra-mural programme in the UK. He also enabled the staff there to play a larger part in determining the department’s policy (a basic commitment he learned years before through the two educational centres).  He continued to explore the possibilities of using new technology for learning, and before he retired, he contributed to the European Space Agency’s understanding of the potential uses of satellite technology for adult education.

Brian’s  work with the Finnish Institute in London led to the award of Knight of the White Rose of Finland in 1990. In 1992, the Open University awarded him an honorary degree and summarised his contribution as “association with innovation, and particularly innovation in communication,” and in 2009 he was inducted into the International Hall of Fame of Adult Educators at the University of Oklahoma.

Throughout his career he wrote, combining scholarship and accessibility, and continued writing long after retirement, and to organise and to campaign for the rights of adults, bringing flair and distinction to everything he did. He co-planned Brighton’s national arts festival in 2006; that year it focused on older people and he gave a keynote lecture about the arts and learning in later life. He was a founding member of the University of the Third Age and first chair of the U3A in London, and campaigned for the rights of older learners for more than fifty years. He returned to his roots in the Educational Centres Association (his early jobs were both in ECA centres) as its President, and represented it well into his eighties  as a member of the high level advisory committee on the Foresight study on mental wellbeing.

In addition to, and at the heart of, his professional accomplishments, Brian brought a generous, open curiosity to everything he did. He was the most encouraging of colleagues, and I benefited from his mentorship over many years. His was a rich and fulfilled life, and I will miss him.