I was flustered as I entered the Royal Society of Arts’ (RSA) hallowed and historical building in London’s fancy West End. I’d almost trodden on a poorly bee while trotting towards the venue. After embarking on a swift rescue mission, I discovered the bee was actually a discarded Ferrero Rocher wrapper. Passers-by had witnessed my faux pas and chuckled. Try and claw your dignity back from that.
Composure adrift, I scuttled into the RSA’s grand reception room where the Festival of Learning Awards pre-bash was taking place. It was brimming with – and I know the description is overused, but it’s an entirely fitting one – inspirational people. People who have embraced adult learning, often against the odds, and used their experience as a means to improve their own lives, those of their families, or the wider community.
Among the crowd was Sonia Ritchie-Park, winner of the Tutor Award, whose work with homeless people with complex needs has changed countless lives for the better. There was Casey Bougourd, winner of the Young Adult Learner Award, who after a tricky time at school, discovered that construction was her calling and has since flourished, promoting women in construction as she continues to progress. There was Steve Whitmore, winner of the Social Impact Award, who became homeless after leaving the armed forces, was supported back to learning by the YMCA and has gone on to gain umpteen fitness qualifications. He teaches, he leads community health projects and volunteers for the Metropolitan Police as a special constable.
Honestly, you couldn’t swing a cat for people with wonderfully powerful stories of steely determination to do more, to be more, to give more. In an increasingly jaded world, the people in that room provided an injection of hope. Everybody cheer! Humans are ace!
I was introduced to another award winner, Bernadette Taylor; a stylish woman with cropped hair, a slick of chic berry-coloured lipstick and what looked like a couture dress (I later found out she’d designed and created it herself). I was unsurprised to hear she is involved in the fashion world. With a person as composed and fabulous as this standing before me, I had to work extremely hard not to accidentally create her a made-up back-story. Just as well, because her real life, without any fictional embellishment, is a film script waiting to happen.
Having left school at 16 without any qualifications, she raised her family and worked as a nursing assistant. Like many women, her life had been about making sure other people were okay. But she’d always been interested in fashion. This lifelong passion started when her children were young. Unable to afford the kind of clothes she wanted to dress her daughter in, Bernadette got behind a sewing machine and started running them up herself. As her interest and expertise developed she taught herself all sorts of fashion design and textile skills. More recently she decided to formalise her interest, taking a “new beginnings” course to get up to speed with academic study. She has just completed her first year of a degree programme, a BA in fashion design at the University of East London. Bernadette is 71 years old.
I love Bernadette. I do. I want to be just like her. I thought I was pushing it, doing my first degree in middle age. But Bernadette’s example is a real motivating force. She’s used to being the only person with white hair in the library. And the oldest, not just on the course but on the campus. It doesn't deter her one bit – and why should it? She has 50 years’ experience of her subject, which I suspect offers a certain amount of quiet confidence.
Time to reassess
As far as I'm concerned, Bernadette is a leader in lifelong learning. She is treading a path we should all follow. If not via formal learning, in conscious learning. By which I mean purposefully setting out to gain new skills, new knowledge and new perspectives.
We know that physical exercise is good for us. We know it’s wise to consume five portions of fruit or veg a day. What we need is a culture shift that better recognises the essential health benefits of daily exercise and nourishment of the brain. Frank McCann, winner of the Learning for Health Award, told me: “You’ve got to feed the brain”. He fed his, after a severe brain injury left him having to start from scratch, learning to breathe, eat, walk, talk. He’s studying art and photography at college now.
With many more of us set to hang around until we’re 100 years old, we need to reassess how we look at age and its relationship with the value of learning. To do that, we must step back from the dominant idea that the sole purpose of learning is an economic gain. Learning at any age and at every level gives us the power to see the world with a fresh frame of mind. And who wouldn't want to see the world with more clarity? I definitely would.