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A satisfied customer of Lifelong Learning Ltd

IT is almost a year since I became a consumer of education. For just pound;82 (plus pound;35 for books and cassettes), I purchased Spanish lessons at my local college.

Up until 17 years ago, when I swapped full-time education for work, I had spent most of my time as a recipient of learning. I went to school, and then university, because I was forced to or because it was expected of me.

In the intervening years, it seems as if students of all ages have become consumers. But only as an adult do you truly identify education as something you buy and, if it fails to come up to scratch, exercise the right to take your custom elsewhere.

One of the most important features of this consumer-orientated system is the learning agreement, normally signed by both parties. Students agree to work hard and attempt to complete the course, while the college promises to do its best to make Spanish lessons a reasonably exciting way of spending two hours every Thursday night.

At the same time, each student is asked to provide as much information about themselves as possible. This is partly to make it easier for the college to squeeze the maximum number of funding units out of the Further Education Funding Council.

Lifelong Learning Ltd is a great leveller. It is a rare chance for the management consultant to sit down next to the builder and muse over the fact that both are as bad as each other when it comes to communicating in Spanish.

We soon discovered a tremendous amount about each other. Not only were we taught how to tell people (in Spanish) our names and where we lived, but also our ages. Eventually, when we came to daily routines, people discovered exactly how long their fellow learners spent in the bathroom each morning.

Two-thirds of the way through the 30-week course, each student was asked to grade the course, facilities and (most interestingly) our teacher. Thoughts of school reports came flooding back and the temptation to write "could do better" was almost irresistible.

But this would have been unfair. Our teacher (who came from Spain) was excellent and managed to keep the class entertained by linking the Spanish language to Spanish lifestyle.

At the same tim, she succeeded in helping people with vastly different backgrounds and interests enjoy basic Spanish and laugh at their mistakes.

Within a few weeks she had given everyone her home phone number and invited people to ring her if they had any problems. "I never realised that teachers could be this nice," commented one student, recalling a rather different classroom atmosphere in her school days.

In spite of this, however, retention was a problem. From 23 people at the start of the course, numbers dwindled to almost single figures by the summer term, despite the fact that some of the students who dropped out had been coping reasonably well.

But then, the college is competing against more than just other training providers for our custom and loyalty. Most adults have full-time jobs and by 7pm on a Thursday may find their enthusiasm for learning has faded.

By this stage of the course, students are also up against the refusal of Lifelong Learning Ltd to free itself from the constraints of the education system. In the real world most people do not have lengthy holidays at Christmas and Easter, with half-term breaks thrown in. Incredibly, it took 10 weeks to get through the last six lessons.

To everybody's relief, there was no final exam. Those assessed to have reached level one (just about everybody who had not dropped out) can look forward to being handed a certificate by the local MP, or some other dignitary, during the autumn term.

In the meantime, this particular learner headed straight to Spain, armed with a dictionary and an ambition to meet some Spaniards whose English was even worse than his Spanish.

Unsurprisingly, many locals failed to see the potential enjoyment of communicating in their own language with a stuttering Briton. Yet there were still some minor triumphs.

Towards the end of the holiday I managed to explain to a waiter that, on a balmy evening, I would rather sit inside and watch the football on TV than eat outside in the cool evening air.

Suddenly pound;117 seemed a small price to pay for becoming part of Lifelong Learning Ltd. I think I will ask what is on offer next term.

Neil Merrick is a freelance journalist

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