'There's no pressure on me to succeed'

June 15, 2001

Olga Wojtas squeezes into a hotel room to hear a nurse's tale of further study.

The workshop title, "Perspectives of Adult Learners", seemed pretty standard. The workshop was not. It was held in a bedroom of the Swallow Hotel Glasgow. The twin beds were stashed in the bathroom and delegates brought their own chairs. Eilidh Whiteford, of Glasgow University's adult and continuing education department, had decided that rather than be a talking head, the workshop would involve interviewing prospective mature student Ann Scott.

Schooldays were not the happiest days of Scott's life. "I don't really remember much before secondary school," she says. "I was in a few schools, because we moved around with my dad's job. When I came back to Scotland, I had a very Irish accent, and quite a few of the teachers picked on it. I would call it ritual humiliation. They made you stand up and talk about what farm you came from."

Once she had sat the O-grade examinations, she just "put in time" until she could leave school and go into nursing. "Going to university was not something I ever wanted to do. I just wanted to be a hands-on nurse." She gave up nursing to bring up two children. Although she has worked in a library and a charity shop, she has largely worked at home.

But at the age of 47, Scott is set to start a Glasgow University degree course, following three years of study through Glasgow's outreach programme. She insists that university was never part of the game plan and seems almost taken aback by her impending undergraduate status.

She returned to learning "accidentally" after her teenage daughter asked her to come to a leisure class in psychology. The local authority education department then contacted her about credit-bearing outreach courses, run by the university and underwritten by the local community education department.

Scott opted for a social psychology course. "I didn't really enjoy it. It was mostly learning from books and you just churned it back out again. It was like going back to school." Scott reluctantly moved on to the next course on offer, Scottish literature. From having loathed English at school, she was hooked. She did not always enjoy what she was reading, but she enjoyed the debate, the sharing of insights and the widening of her horizons. It boosted her self-confidence and self-worth.

Whiteford asks what the biggest academic hurdle had been. "Having the confidence to get into writing essays. Believing that as long as you justify what you write, they don't mark you down. [The local authority] give you a teacher to give you support in writing essays, but it was quite intimidating to produce something six pages long when it was 30 years since you'd done an essay," Scott says.

"We had a support group to get round the basics of how to start learning and how to answer questions. The tutors were very helpful, giving lots of feedback."

As for external pressures, mature students face real responsibilities of running a home, caring for children and elderly relatives, Scott says.

"When you're young, if you're living at home, your mum's still going to cook your dinner, do your washing and make the bed. As an adult, there's no pressure on you to succeed (academically)."

Her husband and children are proud of her and support her decision to continue studying. "But they've not done anything constructive. There's nothing they do to help me," she says. "I'm lucky because the children are older (18 and 19) but even a couple of years ago, you work it round school hours and try and fit it in. It's not easy. You get the kids off school, off sick, on holidays and long weekends, and I find I can't work at night very easily because I'm too tired.

"I thought I was doing really well this year, because my son was at Edinburgh University. But he got so homesick he's come back, and is applying to Glasgow and Strathclyde for next year, which didn't go down too well with me."

Whiteford asks what attracted Scott to the degree course, and there is hollow laughter from the academics in the bedroom at her reply. "I like the form (of the outreach course) with very small classes. It's like a tutorial, with a lot of ideas passed around and a lot of enjoyment from interacting with a small group you know. I don't think it will be like that at university, but I enjoy it so much just now I thought I might as well just go ahead and stick with it."

And the future? "I hope I'll cope with the work. I'm waiting to see what happens, but I'd like to use whatever I learn. It's in the back of my mind to do some archival-type job, museums or libraries. My husband would like me to get a good job so he can retire. They're all wonderful at these witticisms."

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