From shoelaces to Velcro

6th November 2009 at 00:00

Survival skills. Aged five, the list is simple: knowing how to button up your coat; knowing how to tie your shoelaces in a bow; knowing how to share your crisps even though they're your favourite.

At 17, it gets more complicated. You're entering college and this time you're not just leaving Mum at the school gate; you're often leaving home for the first time to share a flat with friends, because you want to feel like a real grown-up student. So what do you need to know this time?

The list is a little longer and a lot more complicated. Most students simply learn the hard way. They discover that landlords, like their lecturers, have a very poor sense of humour. If lecturers no longer find it amusing that they couldn't come to class because they've spent all their bus money on a packet of cornflakes, or because the handle fell off the door and trapped them in their bedroom (conveniently under a nice warm duvet), or because every single item of clothing they possessed was stuck on rinse and hold and they couldn't prise the washing machine door open even with the bread knife, then their landlord probably won't crack a smile either when they confess: "We were having a seance, and the candle burnt a hole in the middle of the carpet."

And, indeed, he didn't. "It was just a burnt bit in the middle, but he went mad!" my students told me.

Over the years, their lists of "things I wish I'd known so I didn't look so stupid" included: the vacuum cleaner has a release button so you don't actually have to look as if you're auditioning badly for Strictly Come Dancing as you waltz round your room partnering a strictly upright cleaner; that it's futile to try to light an electric cooker with matches, even if you use the whole box; that it's not that important if you never really know if the fridge light goes off when you shut the door, because it doesn't cost much anyway.

Students learn much that is simply not on our timetables, Horatio. As lecturers, though, we know that such learning is taking place because we see the freshly-scrubbed and immaculately-groomed youngsters who were delivered by their families to interview morph into somewhat crumpled and harassed students who are living life their way - the new hair colour, the original clothes, the face jewellery, the body art are all the outward manifestations of independence. There are tough lessons to be learnt, but they're ready.

Pity, then, that some undergraduates in London are paying just under pound;600 a week (that's not a misprint) for accommodation which offers a cocoon- like existence, where everything is safely sorted for them - from their laundry to their social group.

No uncertainty, then, and, it would seem, no responsibilities, other than meeting the rent. They are offered a kind of peace of mind - at a price. That price is not just financial. It may come at the cost of learning about life, standing on your own two feet and learning good coping strategies.

Most students just tough it out and are quick learners about life. They become confident young people who no longer have to worry about buttons and bows. Now they know that's why Velcro was invented.

Carol Gow is a former further education lecturer in creative media.

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