Serving up learning to suit everyone's taste

3rd April 2015 at 01:00
With the likes of cafes, churches and unions hosting classes, the most nervous adult student can study somewhere they feel at home

Anne Wallace's area of expertise is fish and chips. As the owner of a family-run takeaway in Manchester, there's nothing she doesn't know about cod, haddock and crispy batter.

But that's not all. A few years ago, as local shops and businesses closed down leaving many unemployed, Wallace remortgaged her house so she could start running computer classes in the cafe next door. Soon, the "School of Fish" was offering ICT training, reading skills and 12-week learning programmes leading to work and further education. "Our precinct is thriving again," explains Wallace, whose social enterprise earned her an OBE. "This is a great place to live and learn."

Wallace's story proves you don't need a classroom to study. In fact, for many adults who don't have access to (or don't want to return to) a school, learning outside the classroom can mean a happier environment and better results.

In today's challenging world of work, it's essential to keep our skills updated. Send a barely literate job application and you'll struggle to compete with the hundreds you're up against. Face redundancy and you'll probably have to retrain. Refuse to join the digital age and you might find yourself replaced by a computer. It's never been so important to embrace the idea of lifelong learning. The jobs we'll have in the future don't even exist yet, so how can we possibly have the skills we'll need for them now?

We need to keep learning just to function in the 21st century. A pensioner living miles away from the nearest bank can improve their quality of life immensely if they learn how to bank online. They'd be able to Skype the grandchildren, too.

According to adult education body Niace, about two-fifths of adults have taken part in some sort of formal learning in the past three years. Of these, 24 per cent studied through university, 18 per cent were at further education colleges and 6 per cent went to adult education centres or classes.

The rest are learning outside the classroom, be that at work, in the library, at the local church, through their union, online, in a museum, at the leisure centre or, as Wallace's example shows, in an unloved precinct in north-west England.

"Most learners want to learn in a place where they feel comfortable or somewhere associated with what they're already doing," explains Fiona Aldridge, Niace's assistant director of development and research.

So it makes sense to teach workers alongside their colleagues during breaks from their usual duties. They'll feel at home, it won't eat into their spare time, they'll know their company has invested in them to ensure their skills are up to date and they'll be better equipped to do their jobs as a result. Run courses for older people in their retirement homes or local community halls and you may find that the stigma and fear associated with learning later in life disappear.

Any time, anywhere

I teach English to adults and I know that students can be scared of the classroom. The blackboard may have turned white since they were last there but it still brings back memories of school. These can include failing at exams, being bullied, coping with an undiagnosed learning difficulty such as dyslexia and being told they were "stupid" or "unteachable" (descriptions I've heard on more than one occasion).

These issues can be even more apparent for younger learners who are retaking GCSEs or studying as part of an apprenticeship. Having only just left school in order to work and earn money, they may not be impressed to find themselves back in front of a teacher with lessons and homework. Last year, a 19-year-old who was enrolled in my English GCSE class lasted one session before telling me it was too much like school.

Adult students have a wide variety of life experiences, so when it comes to their learning environments one size does not fit all. Catering for different types of adults means offering different places for people to learn.

If you work long hours or shifts, if you have family responsibilities or can't afford childcare, you might not be able to attend stand-alone daytime or evening classes. But you can go to a training course run by your employer or take part in family learning by studying alongside your own child at their school.

This can also help to attract men into learning. Traditionally, women have been more likely to embark on adult education. However, the gap has narrowed in recent years and both genders now learn in equal numbers. However, although female students are more likely to study in a classroom, men tend to learn at work or online.

"Women are much more sociable in their learning and are more likely to go to college or night school to engage with new people," Aldridge says. "For men, learning is more functional."

The benefits of adult education are not restricted to landing a better-paid job or clocking up qualifications. It can also boost confidence, improve social lives and simply bring pleasure.

Last year I ran a short newspaper review course in the local library on a Sunday morning. It was casual and informal and at the end of the session students browsed the shelves before exchanging their library books. Unlike their twice-weekly literacy classes, these sessions weren't mandatory and no one ever referred to them as classes. A year later, they talk about the time fondly and say it altered the way that they read newspapers.

A lot of learning took place, but it was not in the usual place - and there's a lot to be said for that.

Kate Bohdanowicz teaches English to adults in East London and is also a journalist

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