School days may not have been the best days of your life, but learning really can be fun.
That is the approach taken by many adult education colleges who are attracting adults of all ages to enjoy themselves learning new skills and making new friends.
From tackling a new language to ballroom dancing, astro physics to photography - there is a huge range of courses to choose from and most require no previous experience or qualifications. WEA (Workers’ Education Association) is a national organisation dedicated to adult education.
Partnered with East Surrey College, in Redhill, the organisation also holds courses at various venues in the east Surrey area, including the Ebbisham Centre, in Epsom, and the Leatherhead Institute.
Diana Ching tutors classes in arts and crafts at both these facilities, specialising in painting, drawing and sewing. She says: "Adult education is a bit underrated and misunderstood. It used to be called evening classes or night school, and it all sounded very serious. But now there is so much you can do and it’s about going away having had a good time."
Jane Thynne, publicity officer for WEA says: "We focus on relaxation and the social aspect of evening classes. You’re not going to have to take your GCSE’s again or anything like that. Take for example our jewellery making class. You can come along as a complete beginner and you will be given all the tools you need. You can take something home with you on your first day and then take it from there and see how you progress. The classes are designed for all abilities, to help keep people engaged and get them to try something they maybe wouldn’t have before."
SCOLA (Sutton College of Learning for Adults) is another organisation, offering over 1,000 courses to people over the age of 19. The four storey building, on St Nicholas Way, Sutton is kitted out with pottery and art studios, a dark room for photography, an exercise studio, as well as two computer rooms.
Running general interest courses as diverse as stained glass window making and aromatherapy, the centre attracts many adult students from the surrounding area. "People come with both learning and being social in mind," explains Kevan Samwells, Head of Learning Division at SCOLA. "Nowadays people tend to use the internet to learn about things. You can learn a lot on the internet just by Googling what you’re interested in. But people like to interact and learn together, especially in art and craft, where you can learn from each other. When you have other people around you it motivates you. The interaction helps you learn and make friends. If you have a friend who’s going to be there you want to come to your lesson all the more."
Sometimes students enjoy their course so much that, when they have reached the end of what the college can teach, they choose to continue their lessons together.
"We call these affiliated groups," says Mr Samwells. "This means that a tutor will drop in to help them every now and again but they will lead their own studies together. I think that just goes to show how much people enjoy learning together."
Ashley McCan has been taking Pilates classes at SCOLA since 2006. Originally attending these lessons to help with low-level back pain, Mr McCan soon became a regular at the classes.
He says: "I convinced my wife, who did the creative writing and Italian courses at SCOLA, to join me at Pilates and we went every week up until she was unfortunately diagnosed with cancer and passed away. When we joined, all those years ago, we met a woman who I am still very good friends with. During the long summer break our teacher makes us a CD and we alternate weeks and practice together at our houses."
Mr McCan is an advocate, due to the benefits to physical and mental wellbeing the class provides. He has also made many new friends in the ballroom dancing lessons he attends weekly.
"The class we’ve had the past couple of years has really gelled," he says. "Tomorrow night I will be going to the dance class and then the next day we are setting of to Berkshire for a holiday, organised by our teacher. We are going away for four days to relax and also do a bit of dancing. Twenty seven of us are going this year." He adds: "I have an awful lot to thank the SCOLA guys for, especially Kevan, who is loved by everyone."
Another student of the college, Elspeth Clarke, has found that taking up languages after her early retirement in 2004 has given her life a boost.
"I was lazy and underachieved in school. When I retired I saw this as an opportunity to revive this passion I had when I was younger. I have gained a lot of confidence since doing the classes. So much so that when, a few years ago, I was asked to be a primary school governor I thought why not! I would never have done that before. The classes have opened doors for me. They have revolutionised my life."
Ms Elspeth believes that adult education plays a vital role in keeping older people healthy. "It gets you out and about and stops you from sitting on the sofa imagining you have various diseases. It keeps you active and out of the doctor’s office."
A recent survey on Community Learning ran the Department for Business Innovation and Skills found that 89 percent of people who took community ran classes found they helped to keep their mind and body active and 81 percent felt better about themselves generally after taking up the classes.
Three quarters of people who took courses found it helped them to relax and relieved everyday stress.
And 86 percent of those who had been participants in adult education classes reported that the course helped them to make new friends.
Courses start at around £5 an hour. Those interested in finding out more about what WEA provides can search for courses near them on their website, www.southern.wea.org.uk, or contact one of the East Surrey team on 01737 225100. For information on the courses SCOLA offer and enrolment visit http://www.scola.ac.uk/ or call 020 8770 6901
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