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Make-up? There's more of a buzz from a good mark...

Linda Arnold reflects on the lives of women at her adult education centre

Angela is studying for GCSE English. She has set her sights on an A grade and is determined to succeed. She's bright and perceptive and it's difficult to provide her with enough work to satisfy her appetite for learning. She's tense with excitement when her marked work is returned and she admonishes herself if she hasn't achieved the grade she so desperately wants.

Angela is 20 and has two children. She left school at 14 because she was pregnant, transferring to a special mother and baby unit. Here she enjoyed the small groups and individual attention.

She went back to school when Joanne was born and found it hard. "I had to go back to the year below. It felt awful. I didn't like it, what with the homework and everything and Joanne to look after."

Angela left at 16 with no qualifications. She tried working part-time but found it frustrating and boring. Then she heard from her boyfriend's sister about the adult education centre on the estate and, after a nervous beginning, is now studying six subjects.

Her friend Jennifer only went to school occasionally. Initially, it was because she spent a lot of time looking after her mum who was ill, but once the habit of missing school was established, it became the norm. "As I grew older and my mum got worse, I had to start writing my own absence letters," says Jennifer. "When I wasn't looking after mum, I was bunking off with my mates. I'm now paying the price for my stupidity. Instead of holding down a decent job, I am now having to take adult education, to help me catch up."

Angela and Jennifer are typical of many young women, who achieve nothing at school and leave - glad to be free from what they see as repression and boredom.

In the intervening years they divide their time between the dole queue and a series of dead-end, poorly-paid jobs. Working, a novelty at first, offers a weekly pay packet and companionship. Most of all, it's free from the constrictions of the school regime. But in spite of their bravado, these girls lack self esteem, feeling they have nothing to their credit and no job satisfaction to gain. The workplace does nothing to build their confidence. Eventually a baby comes along.

Months or years pass and finally they ask themselves: Is this it? Slowly word gets round about the adult education centre on the estate: small and supportive with childcare provision. Filled with apprehension and bad memories of the classroom and failure, these women cautiously enrol for their first class.

Within weeks, they have found new confidence. Hungry for knowledge and asking searching questions, they enjoy the challenge of all that is new to them. They chatter excitedly as they come in, comparing notes on the progress of their GCSE English autobiographical assignment: "I'm going to write about when I had DanielIDo you think I should write about when I married Phil?IDespite what's happened sinceIit's still the biggest thing that's ever happened to me. "

With no money for socialising or baby-sitters, they used to spend every night watching the telly. Now, with the children packed off to bed, their evenings are transformed. Essays are planned, drafted and re-drafted.

When it comes to the exams, top grades are common. The potency of academic success shouldn't be under-rated. Despite exhortations from all quarters for young women to think only of fashion, make-up, how to get and keep a man, most would agree that they get more of a buzz from a good mark for an essay.

"I wish I could come here five full days a week," enthuses Carol. "I love it." Janice says her eight-year-old son watches her study every evening. "He knows I wasted my time when I was at school, and although I'm really enjoying the work, it is hard to fit it all in sometimes. Maybe he'll decide to work hard and get some qualifications."

And it doesn't stop there. Ann brought her mum along and in the first class she was straight into a discussion about the war poetry of Wilfred Owen - a name whose work was completely unknown to her before.

Above all, what these women have gained is a belief in the value of study and a belief in themselves. If they can foster the idea, perhaps when their own children take GCSEs they will succeed first time round.

Linda Arnold works as a community education tutor, teaching English and personal development courses at Beacon Enterprises Centre on a housing estate in Bradford. The names of the women have been changed.

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