The first time Cheryl McGhee walked into one of her A-level classes at Queen Mary's College in Basingstoke, the room fell silent.
The class, most of whom are aged 16-18, could not believe that Cheryl, a 48-year-old former civil servant, was taking the same course as them. "They thought I must be their tutor," she laughed.
Cheryl, who is studying for four A-levels, is among the growing number of adults attending colleges around the country full-time. While the vast majority of adults take part-time courses, numbers of full-time adults increased by 4.7 per cent last year compared with a 3.3 per cent rise in 16 to 18-year-olds.
If colleges are to hit enrolment targets during the next three years, more adults must be recruited to study full-time alongside the traditional intake of 16 to 18-year-olds. Four years ago, Queen Mary's, a sixth-form college, had about 1,300 full-time students - nearly all of whom were teenagers. Since incorporation, it has grown to more than 1,600 full-time students, including 74 adults.
With two post-16 colleges in Basingstoke and others in towns up and down the M3 corridor, Queen Mary's recognises there is a limit to the number of additional 16 to 18-year-olds it can recruit. "There is not a huge untapped market," said head of adult education Ali Sugars.
Adult recruitment began with a "return to study" package, including the chance to attend part-time day or evening classes, but the college was surprised that many adults preferred to join sixth-formers in regular daytime groups. About one-third of its full-time adults, including some with learning difficulties, attend "discreet" classes made up entirely of adults. But segregation is not encouraged.
"It can be a daunting experience for people to come back into full-time education and see huge numbers of youngsters. Some prefer to be in adult-only classes," said Ms Sugars.
"But no adult who has joined a class of mostly teenagers has left because it was a problem. "
Clare Dansey, a 29-year-old hairdresser, is taking A-levels in English literature and psychology as well as a foundation theatre course. She admits that she started out with preconceived ideas about how younger students might react to her, but they turned out to be wrong.
"I thought they might be rather immature, but I didn't give them enough credit," says Ms Dansey, who wants to go on to higher education next year. "It's only when you segregate yourself that you have a problem."
Thirty full-time adults are taking national vocational qualifications in business administration. They include Julie Riley, aged 40, who decided she wanted to update her IT skills after discovering that
her six-year-old daughter knew more about computers than she did.
Ms Riley praised lecturers for adjusting the timetable so that she can meet her daughter from school. "The college is very accommodating, but then I am an adult who wants to be here. I'm hardly likely to skive off." To qualify as full-time, a student must attend an average of 15 hours lessons per week. Last year the number of full-time adults in FE rose by 12,400 to more than 278,000 while the number of students aged 18 and under increased by 15,500 to nearly 481,000.
In spite of the crisis over demand-led funding, Education Secretary Gillian Shephard told colleges at last week's annual conference of the Further Education Development Agency that the Government is still committed to growth. Further Education Funding Council chief executive David Melville also confirmed colleges would continue to be vital providers for students of all ages, not just 16 to 18-year-olds.
The number of 16 to 18-year-olds will increase by 154,000 over the next three years. If participation rates remain similar, colleges can expect to recruit nearly one-third of these - but that will be insufficient to meet targets requiring an extra 114,000 full-time enrolments by 199899.
Alan Tuckett, director of the National Institute for Adult and Continuing Education, said it was important that colleges continued to attract adults and were not tempted to concentrate only on 16-18 year-olds. "Full-time adults are a day-to-day reminder of what further education is all about."
A committee chaired by leading QC Helena Kennedy, which is locked into ways of widening participation in FE, has said adults should be on a "learning pathway", including better advice about financial support when they ask about courses.
Also speaking at FEDA's conference, Ms Kennedy said: "Many adults are afraid that even enquiring about further education may put their benefits in jeopardy".
Judith Summers, a committee member and director of curriculum at Macclesfield College, said the quality of career guidance received by adult returners varied significantly because colleges were not funded to provide it. "Adults may want to put together a fairly individual package, but they need proper guidance and support, " she said.
Queen Mary's principal, Stephen Sheedy, said his college could probably meet its targets by improving retention rates among younger students, but adult recruitment meant it did not have "all its eggs in one basket".
The college also runs part-time classes during the daytime and evenings and is a member of a community education partnership with four schools. Adults attending Queen Mary's full-time do not pay course fees, but must pay to enter exams.
Ali Sugars said the increasing number of adults had forced the college to review the language used in careers documents. Staff enjoyed teaching groups made up of students with a wide age range, while parents were "quite reassured that their children are coming to the sort of college which adults also want to attend".