'Once you've got into it, it's like a drug'
When Sin Tan Lee's husband left her after 30 years of marriage she could hardly have been more alone. After three decades running a takeaway in Durham, they had just moved to Manchester and their two sons were working in her native Hong Kong.
She was in her early 50s and had only hesitant English, yet she knew she had something to give. So she sought and found a new kind of company. "Even now I don't know many people. I feel very isolated, but I enjoy studying.
It makes me feel better; my mind has been occupied," she says. "Reading a book is just like meeting a friend. It's like we don't know each other, but gradually we come together."
Sin Tan is one of a huge number of older learners who have sought new ways into education in the past decade. And she is at the younger end of the age range; about half a million over-60s now enjoy educational provision ranging from "knit and natter" groups to post-graduate degrees.
Sin Tan began her educational journey with the Stockport ethnic diversity service, where she improved her English skills and began helping elderly members of the Chinese community with translation when they needed to visit a doctor or hospital. Then her tutor suggested a summer school at Hillcroft college, a residential further education college for women, which changed her life forever. She was persuaded to stay at Hillcroft, based in Surrey, for a one-year full-time access course and then to embark on a degree.
"There are quite a lot of Chinese women in my situation, and that's why I had to go to college. I wanted to be able to help them," she says. "And everyone was so kind. My tutors helped me when I was going through difficult times."
Sin Tan's tutors at Hillcroft were so impressed that they nominated her last year for a senior learner of the year award from the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education (Niace). Niamh Donnelly, marketing manager for the college, says that when she first met Sin Tan her English was not at all fluent. "She made astonishing progress during that four-week summer school. The reason we nominated her was for her wonderful determination and focus."
Since completing her access course, Sin Tan has returned to the North-west and begun a degree in acupuncture and Chinese medicine at the University of Salford. She hopes to use her new-found skills within the Chinese community and to begin earning a living from them; something of which the Government would be proud, since ministers are increasingly concerned that further education should be work-related. This may now be starting to have an impact on some older learners. Official figures for 2003 show the number of over-60s in government-funded further education was two-and-a-half times higher than in 1980, but in 2004 the figure fell back by 15,000 to 187,000.
Fiona Aldridge, development officer for Niace, says the renewed emphasis on work and on qualifications has forced many colleges to means-test older students who are learning for pleasure, and that fees have apparently put some of them off. "The focus on the skills agenda means learning is now about work, employment and productivity," she says. "What about learning for leisure? What about learning to maintain your interest? What about learning for physical and mental well-being?"
She points to a growing body of evidence that shows the benefits of education for the over-60s are economic as well as personal. Increased mental alertness leads to better physical health, so older learners tend to make fewer demands on the NHS and stay out of care for longer. In Northern Ireland, one city hospital has even donated an empty ward for the University of the Third Age to hold local classes, on the basis that the move is justified on health grounds. One of the most passionate advocates of learning for older people is the former Labour MP Tony Benn, whose late wife Caroline was an adult education lecturer. He recently attended a lobby of Parliament to protest against cuts in adult education.
"There's this idea that education is just preparation for the labour market. I think it's very New Labour, to be quite honest," he says.
"Education is supposed to be about the enrichment of people's lives. Things have become very commercially oriented. If you aren't qualifying for a job it's not seen as worthwhile. I think that's a very narrow view.
"No management consultant would ever find a case for educating older people. But older people who come back to education put back more than they took out. I went back to my wife's old college, and the age range was 18 to 81. It was riveting, because of the balance of experience and opinion that was there."
Those who learn for pleasure, rather than for career reasons, can also find the experience life-changing. More than 70 years ago, Anne Parkinson, from Barrow-in-Furness, was forced to leave school during the depression of the 1930s. Now 88, she has recently become Dr Anne Parkinson.
"My husband and I were active members of the church, and at one of our parochial church council meetings the parish priest happened to remark that we hadn't got a history of the parish. We were driving home, and my husband said, 'We're going to write that book'. But his health deteriorated and it was put on the back-burner. I started writing it after he died in 1993.
When I contacted a retired bishop to write the foreword, he was surprised at the research I'd done without any training."
Anne Parkinson's book was published by the Centre for North-west Regional Studies at Lancaster University, where she went on to write a PhD thesis on the history of Catholicism in the Furness peninsular. "I had desperately wanted to stay at school," she says. "I just never thought there was any possibility of doing anything after that. I had nine children and they could never understand why I enjoyed my education so much. When I went back to it, it took over my life, really. Learning makes you very humble. You realise not so much what you know, but what you don't know."
For some older learners, a return to study can lead them to explore unexpected new avenues - and even to an unexpected return to employment.
Ted Rudge, now 64, went to a Birmingham secondary modern school in the 1950s and never expected to gain any qualifications. "It wasn't even suggested that I should take the 11-plus," he says. "In my last year at school, to be perfectly honest, nobody really bothered if you disappeared.
We would write a composition, and the teacher would just look at it and say, 'Yes, that's OK'. I left school with nothing more to my name than a road safety certificate." Ted Rudge went to work for the Post Office telephone service, which later became British Telecom. Although he had never passed an exam, he became a middle manager before taking early retirement in his late 50s. But he still felt he had something to prove. So he enrolled on a course in Birmingham studies at the University of Birmingham.
"I suddenly realised how inept I was," he says. "When they started giving us assignments, mine were full of spelling mistakes and full stops in the wrong places." Undeterred, he enrolled on a second course, to improve his literacy. Then he took a City and Guilds IT qualification. Then, having got the education bug, he took a tour guides' course at South Birmingham College. Soon he found himself working again, in a part-time role with the National Trust, showing visitors around Birmingham's last remaining back-to-back houses.
Ted's determination won him one of the first degrees in local history awarded by Birmingham University, and his work on the history of the local Romany community was turned into a book, which has sold thousands of copies. This month he became Niace's national senior learner of the year for 2005.
"None of this would have happened if I hadn't made that move back into education," he says. "Now I tell people I'm having a gap year. I want to go back and study web design. Once you've got into it, it's like a drug."