Bags of Plato but no nookie

August 27, 2004

There aren't many places where all of human life debates the whereabouts of the corkscrew - that's the beauty of summer school, says John Kirkaldy.

It was without doubt the most bizarre encounter of my life as a lecturer.

The place was Bath University in the mid-1980s on a very hot Thursday evening in August at about 2am. Having survived the bar and the Last Chance Disco (an essential part of the Open University summer school routine), groups of students - mainly philosophers - were debating the kind of topics that one discusses at that time of the morning: the morality of Wittgenstein; my wife does not understand me; and, most important of all, where is the corkscrew? I was escorting the local stringer for one of the tabloids, anxious to get details of this event that had over the past few years acquired a certain notoriety. ("Keep a very close eye on him and make sure that the students don't get him drunk," I was told.) "No nookie and no pot!" he exclaimed with disgust. We both made our excuses and left.

This image of summer school still persists, however, and is largely a very unfair one. I must here declare an interest: I have spent the equivalent of about a year of my life at summer school and I do not regret a moment of it. In fact, it is the best educational experience I have encountered, teaching adult students from all backgrounds who have paid good money to be there and have given up a week of their lives. They want good value, but are more than happy to meet you halfway. Their energy and enthusiasm is infectious and invigorating.

What makes summer school is the OU group - a bunch of individuals, totally unknown to one another, thrown together, usually for a week. Like that old advertisement for the News of the World , all human life is there. I have met every profession from casino croupier to cowman, and from millionaire to the unemployed. I have taught the famous, for example, Connie Booth (Polly from Fawlty Towers ) and other colleagues have encountered celebrities such as Julie Christie and Matthew Kelly.

Like good wine, the OU group has subjectively got better over the years.

Thanks to the rising cost of a conventional university education, a growing number of students in their teens and early 20s are attending. It is something of a challenge to teach part of a humanities course with a block on the 1960s to bright students whose parents were there (just) and need an explanation as to who Paul Simon is.

A growing number of students are also coming from all over Europe and occasionally from other parts of the world. I now teach a course on the two world wars and have had students from France, Germany, Holland and Spain.

Over the years, we have also taught students who have direct experience of the wars. Their contrasting views have certainly been a big boost to different perspectives on events. Long before other institutions were doing it, the OU was encouraging students with disabilities to attend summer school if at all possible. They are sometimes helped by volunteers, usually current or ex-OU students, who give up a week of their lives (unpaid, except for free travel, board and lodging) to help out.

OU students generally work hard and play hard. Each course has a different programme with compulsory and voluntary parts, but I am always impressed at how many will turn up to events, even at the end of a very long day. Nearly all courses offer tutorials at home, but for some students, summer school may be the only chance of face-to-face teaching. (Email and videoconferencing have helped out with this; I have recently received essays dispatched from service personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan, and from an ocean-going sea tanker somewhere between Japan and Australia.) Summer school allows catch-up time and discussion about the course in an environment free from the usual distractions. "It is so nice to hear that other people are in the same boat and facing the same problems," is an often repeated cry.

Summer school does, of course, attract some good anecdotes. One tutor at Keele University many years ago had an elderly man who did not write anything on a diagnostic test except for his name. After the test, it was found that he had wandered in from the Saga holiday group that was sharing the campus and was too polite to mention it to anybody.

I unfortunately had a student who died in his room overnight of a heart attack. A mystery bug hit another summer school and laid many low with illness. I rescued an alcoholic, who had fallen off the wagon during summer school, from a bench in the local bus station where he was sleeping. I was at York University when a tutor on another course in the next-door hall of residence was murdered. Everybody had the option of going home, but no one took it and everybody made a special effort to make it a really good experience. In nearly 25 years, I can, however, count on the fingers of one hand the number of truly antisocial characters I have encountered and know of only two students sent home.

It is true that there is a frisson of sexuality at some summer schools - men and women, tutors and students, away from the usual constraints of home life. I do not think it is because I am growing older, but there seems to be far less of it than there used to be. (I once got approached myself because I had, inadvertently, put my ID badge in OU Gay Society recognition mode.)

Moreover, the OU has put in place very firm guidelines against any form of harassment. Some years ago its newspaper, Sesame , banned any mention of summer school from its personal advertisements - the only time in the history of journalism that a newspaper has axed far and away its most popular item. Many of these were undoubtedly spoofs or in-jokes, but some were genuine cris de coeur from "your little piglet, week five, Holloway".

Every student survey suggests that summer schools provide a very worthwhile experience, yet they are being cut in number (not all OU courses have a summer school anyway). I know of OU summer school groups who have reunions and many students keep in touch over a number of years.

The main reason for these cuts is money: summer schools add to the cost of a course. Some adult students also find it increasingly difficult to find an extra week in their hectic lives. Courses that do not have a summer school often recruit better than ones that do. Two of the bastions of summer school - the social sciences and technology foundation courses - have done away with summer school, for example. Last year, amid great controversy, the arts foundation course summer school was also abolished.

Existing summer schools have had increasingly to fight hard to justify their continuation. I hope that there will always be a place for summer school: it is unique and very worthwhile.

John Kirkaldy is an associate lecturer with the Open University.

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