The very best in adult education - ways to change your life in the south-east

Adult education

Adult education - Credit: Various

Adult education opens up a whole new world of learning as well as opportunities to further your skills and make new friends – and you’re never too old or under-qualified to enjoy the benefits. Adele Mitchell looks at some of the many options

If you haven’t considered adult education before, or happened to browse one of the brochures or websites recently, you’ll be amazed by the diversity of the courses on offer – from those to inspire beginners or create a gateway to employment to others that will stretch even the most ardent enthusiasts of their subject.

Take your pick from the courses available in the south-east and by next term you could be studying Computer Skills for the Over-60s, Anti-Skid Driving Tuition or Russian. Fancy raising your heart-rate? Opt for Tap Dancing, Bollywood Dancing or Flamenco. Like cookery? Become a dab hand at dim sum or Lebanese recipes. Love arts and crafts? How about Chinese Brush Painting or the intriguingly titled Drawing for the Terrified? Want to spend time in the Great Outdoors? Why not have a go at courses on Mountain Bike Maintenance, Edible Gardens or Golf for Beginners? You could even learn how to assemble flat-packed furniture or get to grips with plumbing.

And this list really only scratches the surface of choice: each year, there are over 2,000 adult education courses on offer in Sussex alone. Courses range from one-day workshops to those that last a term or run over the course of a year. They take place during the daytime, in the evenings and even at weekends and all are taught by skilled tutors who are experts in the areas they teach. The only problem is deciding which one to choose!

Making new friends Of course, alongside the more unusual offerings, the traditional subjects, such as languages and arts and crafts, continue to be popular as well. “Here in Surrey, we offer 14 different languages, including Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and Portuguese,” says Janet Robinson, curriculum manager of Surrey Adult & Community Learning. “Our students choose to study a language for all sorts of good reasons: for work, because they have a second home abroad or a new relationship, or simply to enhance their holiday experience.”

Whatever the motivation may be, adult education is a great opportunity to learn a new skill or fulfilling interest, improve knowledge in specific areas, pursue a healthier lifestyle or add a new social dimension to your life.

“Because students sign up to do a course rather than dropping in occasionally, they not only get to build technique but also make new friends and maybe go for a coffee after the class,” says Shalini Bahla, who was recently awarded an Asian Women of Achievement Award for Just Jhoom, the Bollywood-inspired dance fitness programme that she founded, and which is available at several adult community learning centres in Surrey. “We have a lot of mums in our morning sessions and they really appreciate the chance to learn a new skill, get fitter and enjoy some ‘me time’ together.” Step in the right direction Sofia Kennedy, aged 51, discovered Just Jhoom at an Adult Community Learning (ACL) Dance Showcase in 2012, which was a platform for teachers and students to share their knowledge of different dance and fitness classes. She was immediately hooked and was first in line when the new class started. She is particularly impressed by the quality of the teaching. “The teacher, Rebecca Amlani, is a delightful lady and put us at our ease immediately. With her clear instruction and demonstrations, and the lively music, we enjoyed the class and gained confidence with each lesson.” Last year, Sofia attended an ACL forum as part of a public value review and heard positive experiences from students on other types of courses too.

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A fantastic tutor makes all the difference to any learning experience. Eric Bartholomew only discovered that he was dyslexic – at aged 60 - when he enrolled on a creative writing course at Broadstairs Adult Education Centre in Kent and the problems he described were recognised by his tutor Maggie Solley and a fellow student. “When I was at school, if you couldn’t spell or weren’t very good at English, you were written off as a dunce,” he says. “It was only as a result of taking this writing course that I discovered what the problem was.” Thanks to Maggie’s inspiration (and assistance from fellow student Carol), Eric has gone on to have three books published. “Maggie inspired me so much: in her class, at age 60, I found the encouragement I should have had at 15!”

Never too old There is no upper age limit for enrolment. “Our oldest student – and currently enjoying keep fit classes – is 97 years old,” says Sam Boulton, marketing and communication manager at Aspire Sussex, the charitable enterprise that delivers adult education courses across the county. Neither do you need previous experience in your chosen subject. “Our courses on how to use Skype and Facebook are particularly popular with older people such as grandparents because they enable them to enjoy the benefits of digital communication and keep in contact with family all over the world.”

To give another example, medal collector David Fordham was among more than 2,200 people helped by Surrey County Council to get online for the first time last year. The retired creative director learned how to use the internet, e-mail and social media at one of the free courses run by Surrey libraries to help him build his collection of military medals. “I use e-mail to stay in touch with my friends and family, and Google has proved to be a great source of contacts and forums for information,” he says. “The world has really opened up for me.”

While many courses are recreational and are aimed at those who wish to pursue an interest, others can lead to formal qualifications. Some courses in functional skills such as English and maths are free to attend and are designed to build the essential skills that are a gateway to employment, career progression or qualification, as well as enabling parents to help their children with their homework or make day-to-day tasks more manageable.

Peter Lescanycz first visited Kent Adult Education’s Skill Plus Centre in Ashford as he was unemployed and looking to gain more confidence to be able to put himself over well in interviews. Keen to improve his English and learn some IT skills, he enrolled on a literacy course and made good progress. “I now make fewer mistakes than I used to and am more happy about this,” he says. “I find the learning fun.” Peter was also searching for a job and was offered a work trial at Waitrose, which has resulted in a permanent contract. He says the main thing he has gained from the centre is increased confidence, which he is sure has helped him to secure his job.

Something for everyone So, whether you’re looking to improve your literacy skills or want to find out how to write a CV, if you fancy a weekend workshop on stone carving or a short course on how to use eBay, or even a term dedicated to playing the saxophone or animal psychology (to name just a few more of the courses available) then contact your local adult education provider (see contacts above). It could just change your life.


3 ways to change your life

Here, we meet three individuals who have never looked back since joining an adult education class

Pat Lock, aged 82, from Woking, Surrey

Pat is a perfect advertisement for the benefits of adult education. “I’ve taken adult education classes all through my adult life including watercolour painting, English, computers, tap dancing - very enjoyable - and in the last ten years, sculpture, which I only gave up a couple of years ago when the clay became too heavy to lift.” However, it was an adult education course in cake decorating that really transformed Pat’s life. She enjoyed it so much that she went on to study for a qualification. From there, she went on to win international cake decorating prizes at Olympia, write magazine features and teach – including her own adult education courses in Surrey. She’s had her own website for 12 years and regularly posts cake decorating videos on YouTube – one of which has had an astonishing 84,000 views. Despite her age, Pat’s enthusiasm for education hasn’t waned “People don’t change just because they’re a bit older,” she explains, “and I’ve always enjoyed learning.”

Tom Stagg, aged 21, from Burgess Hill, West Sussex

Last year, Tom was signing on. Through his Job Centre, he secured a six-week work experience placement at Aspire that included an ECDL course (European Computer Driving License) and an Employability course. “I really enjoyed the placement and asked if I could stay on during the summer on a voluntary basis, which I did. Then an IT technician post came up at Aspire’s Burgess Hill centre and I got the job, which I’m really enjoying.” Tom is confident that the adult education aspect of his work placement made all the difference to his job prospects. “There were four of us on the placement, and so far three of us have gone on to find employment.” He’s now studying graphic design in his free time and has his sights set on a creative career.

Jill Hawkins, aged 58 , from Sevenoaks, Kent

Jill is a maths teacher at Dartford Grammar School in Kent who has always enjoyed learning very much herself. She previously worked in banking and, on her day off, studied for a Kent University degree in History & Philosophy of Art at Tonbridge Adult Education Centre. More recently, she has gone on to expand her skills by taking classes in garden design, Pilates and watercolour painting. As an experienced adult education student with a craving for new learning, she is aware of the importance of engaging potential students. “Courses should be easy to book and held in suitable locations that enhance the course,” she says. “And alongside the lighter, more traditional adult education courses, I would also like to see more academic subjects, such as art history or philosophy, that can really stretch those people who choose to study them.”

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