It's never too late to learn

May 26, 2000

University is becoming a reality for many who did not make it the first time, writes Olga Wojtas

I left school when I was 16," says Sarah Fusco, aged 33. "Nothing was expected of me at school, and my family didn't expect me to do well. I got married and had kids." But the recent encouragement of a community education teacher led Ms Fusco to a pre-access course at the nearby Stevenson College in Edinburgh. She has now completed a Stevenson access course and has begun a psychology degree at Edinburgh University.

She is recounting her experiences at a conference hosted by Napier University for adult learners in west Edinburgh, one of the city's most deprived areas. The "Changing Places" conference is organised by LinkWest, a guidance network of local adult education providers, including Napier, Stevenson, community education and community high schools.

"Community education was much more approachable than university. There was much more support," says Ms Fusco. "You got to know people really well, there were names and faces you could talk to, but at university everything's email and they tell you just to read the handbook."

Ms Fusco believes lectures and tutorials should be restructured to enable adult learners to concentrate their studies into one or two days a week, rather than an hour here and there. With two children aged nine and 14, she finds it complicated to travel into the city centre. "Overall, finance isn't as big a problem as time," she says. "The way they teach is inflexible. It's designed for teenagers and doesn't suit mature students with massive commitments."

The other adult learners at the conference are concerned that the pressures will force Ms Fusco to drop out. "I would never give it up," she insists. "My son takes it for granted now that he's going into some kind of further and higher education as well."

Although Napier's Sighthill campus is in west Edinburgh, this is the first time most of the adult learners have been in a university, and LinkWest and Napier are anxious that the experience should be enjoyable. Lunch is a thick home-made vegetable soup with sandwiches, eaten to the accompaniment of the Auld Spice community band, a sprightly group of pensioners who play Scottish dance music.

During the afternoon break, members of the local adult learners' theatre group, Moving Parts, present a darkly humorous play they have written on lifelong learning. It is a fanciful vision of a future world in which lifelong learning takes place in furtive corners and is in danger of raids by a sinister militia ("It was horrible - A4 pads and Biros all over the place"). Three lifelong learners are hauled up in front of a judge who convicts them "of a crime which can only be described as admirable" and sentences them "to the continuation of your lifelong learning".

The common room is enlivened with life-size cartoons of Henry McLeish, Scotland's minister for enterprise and lifelong learning, Wendy Alexander, minister for communities, and other local representatives. A banner above them reads: "We Asked Them To Come Along. They Couldn't Make It. Tell Them What You Think Anyway."

By the end of the day, the figures are festooned with yellow Post-Its: "Put more money into education, provide living grants"; "Make it worthwhile for people to better themselves and society in general. It shouldn't have to be a sacrifice"; "Free child care"; "MONEY MONEY MONEY".

But while the buzz groups undoubtedly highlight money as a problem, a key theme to emerge is the need for staff in institutions to help boost adult learners' confidence. Amid laughter, one learner reports a Damascene conversion, having believed that education was "not for her", when she visited a neighbour, a maths teacher, who dropped a cup. "I thought, 'Wow, she's got a maths degree and she's dropped a cup. You don't have to be a superhuman being to get an education.'" The learners believe there should be introductory courses in assertiveness and communication skills before tackling any subject. Access to staff is crucial throughout learning, as is "a warm welcome".

While learning has the potential to improve job prospects, the adult learners take a far broader view of its benefits. "The more you know, the more you understand," says one. "It makes you more tolerant. It stops things like racism and religious bigotry."

They are particularly concerned about future generations. Ms Fusco's children now see higher education as an option because of her degree course. But there are fears that if adults fail to be involved in learning, this also has a knock-on effect. "Without putting more money into lifelong education, future generations will lose out, because we're responsible for these future generations," said one buzz group leader.

Claudia Esslinger, LinkWest's coordinator, says: "Learning is very much about people taking control of their lives, trying to improve their lives through education, but also putting something back into their communities, and using learning to be active in their communities."

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