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Prolongs active life;FE Focus

Older people find that official support for lifelong learning stops when a qualification is not the aim. Martin Whittaker reports

ADA Wilcock left school at 14. She married, brought up six children and worked in a succession of factory jobs.

"I would never have gone for an office job," she said. "I wouldn't have thought I was educated enough."

Mrs Wilcock, 68, from Liverpool, has now found a new lease of life back in the classroom. She has passed GCSEs in English language and literature, gaining Bs in both. She is currently doing an access course and has conditional offers from two universities to study sociology.

"If somebody had said to me 20 years ago "Would you like to go and do this?", I would have loved to. But I had to go out to work then. It wasn't an option for me."

She began studying through the Dark Horse Venture, a small Liverpool-based charity which helps older people discover their hidden talents.

This year has been officially declared United Nations' International Year of Older Persons, and the promotion of learning is one of its central tenets.

Yet despite the Government's stated commitment to lifelong learning, organisations like Dark Horse feel that Britain's growing elderly population - especially those in residential care - are marginalised when it comes to educational opportunities. That learning for learning's sake is a luxury many simply cannot afford or do not have access to.

Dark Horse runs a national award scheme for people aged 55 and over. Participants take up an activity of their choice for 12 months and at the end are awarded a certificate. The charity sees older people as "dark horses" with talents which may have lain dormant for years, and aims to give them a new purpose in life.

Its founder is Mary Thomas. She taught in a large comprehensive in Merseyside and after retirement she worked as education officer for Age Concern. Now 74, she is angry at the Government for what she sees as a lack of learning opportunities for the elderly.

"They are not aware," she said. "A lot of them do not understand what old age is really like. They don't understand the real meaning of loneliness and boredom. It can happen to anybody - middle-class people, the aristocracy - everybody."

Steve Goodwin, the Dark Horse Venture's national co-ordinator has a background in care for the elderly, and is chairman of the Institute of Human Ageing Training Forum for Liverpool University. He believes that alleviating boredom and giving older people a purpose can prolong life. There is considerable research from Scandinavia to support this view.

"I believe we kill people through boredom. I've always felt there ought to be opportunities for people who can't join in existing structures of education. Although there are things like the Open University, you very rarely get anybody in residential care who's got either the money or the facilities to get involved."

The Dark Horse Venture is attempting to address this in several ways. One is the Age-to-Age Project, launched in 1996 in partnership with the Institute of Human Ageing. Its aim is to get older people producing distance-learning packs for others for whom access to educational facilities is restricted.

"You might as well use the resources around you," said Mr Goodwin. "We already have lots of older people across the UK who, as part of the Dark Horse Venture, were involved in things such as writing local history. So I thought what do they do with their work at the end of it?

"I thought if we extended this by getting more people to write about local history, especially their own life histories, there's your material to make distance learning packs at no cost."

Another of the charity's projects is the Encourage programme, where older people are coaxed into an interest in music, theatre and art through workshops by organisations such as the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and the Welsh National Opera. There is also a roadshow - a 33ft lorry which travels the country as an exhibition and recruitment centre.

The inadequacies of courses for the elderly were recently outlined in Learning to Grow Older amp; Bolder, a report by the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education. It confirmed a significant exclusion of older people from a whole range of learning opportunities.

As part of the UN programme, a mapping exercise is being developed to look at how local services tally with the learning needs of the area's older people. The aim is to involve organisations for the elderly in carrying out the exercise.

Jim Soulsby, co-author of the NIACE report said: "We hope it will begin to develop an overview of what is available."

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