You're never too old to learn

19th October 2007 at 01:00

Elizabeth Buie visits Clydebank College, where lifelong learning is taken very seriously - especially by its 106-year-old student. Lifelong learning means just that at Clydebank. The college can lay claim to the oldest student in Scotland - Barry Sutherland, 106.

Barry (short for Barbara) is the eldest of a group of ladies, all residents of Edinbarnet Nursing Home in Duntocher, who attend craft classes every week at Scotland's newest college campus. Amid the throng of teenagers rushing from class to class, their minibus rolls up sedately every Thursday, and the ladies are helped out. Most are wheelchair-bound, others walk with a helper at their side.

For some, this is the highlight of their week - a chance to see new things and fresh faces, to reminisce about bygone days, and have a cup of tea and a biscuit with college staff. Their handicrafts are only one aspect of their work - the social engagement is just as significant. The group, which can vary in number from five to nine, relies on helpers to do a lot of the work, but others are more able and dextrous. This is learning support with a difference - a class aimed at stimulating the minds and fingers of the most elderly members of the community.

Pat Dickson, co-ordinator of part-time classes in the home economics department, explains that the name "rehab class" has stuck over the 10 or so years the class has been running, although she acknowledges it may not be the nicest or most politically correct name.

The class used to come under the healthcare department, to help stroke victims and the housebound. But it has evolved from there to the home economics department's supported learning wing. Under the tutelage of lecturer Ailie Keith, the ladies do simple needlecraft, weaving, card- making, make coat-hangers, or origami paper flowers. The idea, says Mrs Keith, is to use colours and textures to improve their co-ordination and concentration skills. A similar class runs in the afternoon with students from various locations.

"We take lifelong learning seriously. We just tune in to the needs of the people within our vicinity. If they can come, we offer a class," says Mrs Dickson.

For virtually every person who attends this class, this is their first experience of a college. They used to love going to the old college campus because their classroom on the fifth floor gave them fantastic views. They all say they prefer the new campus on the riverside, however, although their classroom looks north towards the Kilpatrick Hills rather than over the Clyde.

Margaret Curran, a student support officer, usually spends her days sorting out students' problems. Assisting Mrs Keith with these more mature learners, she admits her talents lie not so much in the creative side, but in getting them to talk. "They are full of wee stories, they like to chat," she says.

One morning, when the conversation turned to the old dance-halls of Glasgow, she discovered that Jean Robinson had been a keen roller- skater.

"Did you ever go to the steamie?" she enquired. That sent most of them down memory lane, but not Barry, who was indignant she had never gone to one. She came from a more privileged background in Aberdeen, where her family could afford to employ someone to do the washing. Her father, who had a tailor's business, died when she was a baby. But his expertise perhaps explains why she is so good at making things in the craft class, she muses.

Barry is the sole member of the class who has ever attended any form of post-school education, but it was long ago and details have dimmed in her memory. Just after the First World War, she went to nightclasses in cookery at Glasgow's "Dough" School for a year, to keep a friend company. Her day job was working as a cashier in an office near the meat market, before she married, moved to Edinburgh and gave up work. She has been a widow for many years, but has a son, four grandchildren and five great- grandchildren. She lived on her own until the age of 105.

Asked if she looks forward to the class, she replies firmly: "Very much so."

Despite having arthritis in her hands, she is disappointed if she does not complete an article each week to take back home. "It's like being at playgroup," she confides.

A few weeks ago, the ladies were invited to lunch in the canteen. Surrounded by students, they had the time of their lives, making the meal stretch over two hours while they watched the historic "Balmoral" pleasure boat steam down the Clyde to where the "QE2" was docked at Greenock.

Kathleen Cannon, hobby therapist at Edinbarnet, accompanies the ladies to the classes every week. They range in age from Margaret McDougall, who is only 49 and suffers from Huntingdon's Disease, to Barry, the matriarch. "They just love coming for the company," she says.

Jean Robinson enjoys seeing the young students but admits it makes her feel her 87 years. "You realise what you have missed during your life. In my day, you were lucky if you got to school."

She wishes now she had had the chance to do further training. "I think I'd like to have been a nurse," she says. Instead, she worked in an office in Glasgow that sold furniture. Her talent in her younger days was baking wedding and christening cakes.

May Clark, who is 66, worked as a shop assistant, but claims she would have been too frightened to go to college in her youth. In those days, there were few opportunities or expectations, she admits. But her eldest son did computing at Clydebank College, she adds proudly.

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