Putting the grey matter to work

Pamela Coleman

Journalist Pamela Coleman describes her year as a mature A-level psychology student.

If education is wasted on the young it is not exactly plain sailing when you're grown up. Going back to school after 30 years has been much tougher than I'd expected - stimulating, challenging and fun but jolly hard work - and I still got exam wobbles even though I was old enough to know better.

When my second son went off to university last September, I enrolled at my local sixth-form college for a one-year crash course in A-level psychology, something I'd planned to do for ages. With only three hours' tuition a week, I soon discovered there was a lot more homework than I had bargained for.

In my enthusiastic innocence I'd also thought psychology was about people and behaviour (not all that different from journalism). To my horror it also involved quite a lot of maths. However, with the help of fellow students who'd quickly become supportive friends and Dave, our tutor, I began to fathom the mysteries of "mean deviations" and "homogenous variances".

Drawn together in adversity - everyone was running their studies in parallel with a job andor full-time parenting - we quickly gelled into a supportive group and were in regular phone contact between lessons.

Our families, friends and colleagues seemed quickly bored by our latest psychological insights or pleas to "spare just five minutes for this test" in the cause of our research.

Husbands, wives and partners began complaining that psychology classes were dominating our lives and every week one more potential psychologist seemed to drop out under the pressure until only a dozen remained.

I shall never forget the first lesson. My heart sank at the brightly-coloured posters and tables (not desks) arranged in a U-shape, so different from the formal setting of my grammar school days. "Mature" seemed to apply to anyone over 18 but this lot all looked so young - surely they weren't born when I was last at school?

I was contemplating retreat when the tutor ambled in. His demeanour was relaxed, his manner friendly - and, best of all, his hair showed hints of grey. I guessed he was about my age. I was no longer in a minority of one.

Age turned out to be my strongest card. One advantage of being quite long in the tooth is that life holds fewer surprises and you know a lot about human behaviour. This compensated for my rusty brain which I feared would never assimilate all the facts and theories being thrust at us thick and fast. Then I was reminded that even the young suffer from memory loss sometimes.

On that first evening we plunged in at the deep end, all having to say a few words about ourselves. We were a mixed bunch. One student was a policeman, one worked in a bank, one was a roadie in a rock 'n' roll band, another was a computer boffin. There was a nurse in an old people's home wanting to do social work and a bus driver training to be a pilot, a dimunitive blonde nanny hoping to become a counsellor with abused children and a 6ft 3in optics technician planning to go on to university. Three young mums were picking up studies where they'd left off to have children and a chap who had been on the receiving end of psychotherapy was curious to find out more about it.

By Christmas we were down to our hard core of 12, determined to stick it out. Our habit was to adjourn to the pub after every class. Troublesome coursework for continuous assessment was discussed, along with troublesome bosses and partners. We looked for the psychological reasons for anything and everything.

I forgot I was the oldie: there was no age barrier. We argued and pontificated, just as I'd heard my student sons do so often.

We were all having such a good time we were half way through the course before we realised we were heading for an exam. There was no time for mocks, no time for revision in class.

To complete the syllabus we had to rattle along at such a lick, one missed lesson seemed a catastrophe. Social life went on hold. Every spare moment was spent poring over books, borrowing videotapes and experimenting with new study aids.

I interviewed Jo Brand, the comedienne, for a newspaper article and on discovering she had a psychology degree found myself asking her views on the Stroop effect.

By Easter I began to recognise the symptoms of A-level stress that I'd recently seen in my sons. Equilibrium was not helped by reports of someone running amok at college, reputedly with CS gas, resulting in daytime students and staff being rushed to hospital.

Dave, caught up in our pre-exam panic, counselled us in the pub and offered private tuition. I put my name down for extra maths. Half a dozen of us continued to go into college during the holidays working in an office supplied by the student support unit. Mature students don't hesitate to ask for help. I would never have dared to make such demands when I was at school.

Twenty per cent of the A-level was based on coursework but we also had two three-hour papers to sit. After a sleepless night I presented myself at the vast sports hall, handed in my handbag as requested and found my appointed desk.

Suddenly I was a teenager again and I froze. After what seemed an age the words on the question sheets came into focus and I began writing. I threw into my essays everything I could think of, completely forgetting Dave's patient explanation of the difference between "compare and contrast" and "discuss".

Half-way through the first exam an ear-splitting alarm went off. Was this another CS gas attack? Should we rush out? The noise stoppedIbut my concentration had gone.

I put a line through one of my essays, answered another question I thought I could handle better then realised too late - after I'd handed the script in - that I'd misread it and my rejected essay would have been fine. How, at my age, I could make such a crass mistake? How many times had I reminded my sons to "read the question"?

It's all over now, my class of '95. I met some smashing young people who took years off my age, and I learned a lot. I proved to myself that it's never too late to try something new. Now, flushed with enthusiasm, I have enrolled with the Open University.

Pamela Coleman got a B grade in A-level psychology at Richmond-upon-Thames College. Two students from her class start university this term

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