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Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Learning and Leisure - the disappearance of 'Night School'


In the old days people went to 'Night School' to learn a new skill, like a language, or carpentry, or DIY, or car maintenance, and you had to book well in advance to secure your place. That idea morphed into 'Adult Education', and that into 'Adult and Community Education', as if by adding the word 'community', whole communities would suddenly be engaged in out of hours education. For the past couple of decades I have been a teacher for adults at day and evening classes and have noticed big changes in the way adults learn and are taught. Class numbers are dwindling, and the average age is getting older. Aren't younger people interested in leaning new skills, I wondered?

The first thing you notice  if you turn up at a government-funded  leisure class is the mounds of paperwork. The increase in paperwork was first highlighted as far back as 2008 in this article  in The Guardian. On the obligatory termly feedback forms, learners ask over and over again for less paperwork, but their pleas are ignored, despite the fact this might be the only criticism they have of the class. The vast amount of paperwork is to ensure quality of teaching, an admirable aim, but remember, these are adult customers we are talking about, not children forced into a learning environment. If they don't feel the class meets their needs they can ask to choose another course, ask for a refund, or complain. Few do, as the quality of teaching is often excellent, with or without the 'peer review, mid-term survey 'etc etc.

Some of the classes are classes  earn you a qualification, for example an NVQ or similar, but according to the Adult Learning Survey figures, only 25% of the classes are of this type. The rest are leisure learning classes such as 'Holiday French', 'Watercolour Painting', 'Guitar for Beginners'. These provide a social as well as an educational function, though the coffee breaks might well now be consumed by form-filling, as the learners puzzle over whether or not they really know how to play Scarborough Fair well enough to tick it off on their list of objectives, and whether or not playing to each other counts as evidence, or whether the tutor must video it.

The amount of paperwork has meant Adult Education teachers in subjects such as the  Arts, Sport or subjects such as Yoga have given up with a system which demands they do initial assessments on people who don't want to be assessed. Adults who have come to a class to relax or because they failed in school find that their first lesson (even in Yoga) consists of an assessment of their current ability, (slightly scary) and that the whole scheme of paperwork is managed by, believe it or not - the school inspectors, Ofsted. Students are confronted by a 'what are your objectives' questionnaire, often when they are a total beginner to a subject. e.g.Q: 'Astronomy - what are your personal learning goals in this class?' A: 'Er...I would like to know more about the stars.'

The National Adult Learning Survey 2010 'has recorded a steep decline in non-formal and informal learning compared with previous NALS. Participation in formal learning is unchanged. The decline in non-formal learning coincides with the shift in public funding away from short courses in favour of longer courses leading to nationally recognised qualifications.'

At the same time, there has been a huge rise in the number of people who now head for the U3A - the University of the Third Age. The U3A runs its classes as interest groups. There is no paperwork, and the teachers are unpaid volunteers. You can join as long as you are retired or semi-retired, and in these days of the internet, lots of people are semi-retired or work part-time from home. Many of the retired people who used to  support Local Authority Adult Education classes have joined the U3A, and groups are thriving and bursting at the seams. This is for several reasons - first because the cost is so cheap to attendees - £1 or £1.50 a class, plus a nominal joining fee. Secondly, there is no paperwork to do and no exams. Thirdly, the classes (described as interest groups) are led by enthusiasts for their subject, who again are often excellent teachers, and the classes are designed to be guided by the needs of the attendees.

But the biggest rival of all to Adult Education and  the U3A is the internet. Now you can tutor yourself in just about anything on-line. A friend of mine recently learnt how to french-polish a table via an online tutorial, including setting fire to the polish. He wasn't warned not to try it at home. In one way, this method of learning is extremely empowering. The emphasis is firmly on the learner motivating him/herself, and there is something to be said for making mistakes in the privacy of your own home where no-one will see you, or grade you out of 10.

So what is lost? In all these ways of learning the inspiration of a one-to-one relationship with a teacher/mentor. I can't imagine anyone will remember their online tutor in quite the same way as they remember someone they have actually had face-to-face contact with. I remember my teachers as people first, and as teachers second. (Thank you, Mrs Wells, Mr Thurloe, Mike Robson, Chris Bostock). Enthusiasm can come over online, but it is not the same as being galvanized by the personal attention of someone who sets you on fire to learn. With the internet method of learning we have to rely on inspiring ourselves, and perhaps that is a good thing, but perhaps we will miss the real-life contact with someone who cares about our progress as an individual.


The U3A method keeps a sharing relationship open, but runs the risk of  tutors being unqualified or inexperienced in their subject. Health and Fitness courses in particular are much in demand with the older age-group, but the U3A has few members qualified enough to lead them. The Adult Education model focuses narrowly on judging quality of teaching by whether or not the forms are filled, and  not on the invisible relationship between learner and teacher. The internet appeals massively to men, conspicuously absent at most of these classes, but engaging with learning online. There is a strong appeal to them in Doing It Yourself.

As a creative writing tutor, I have seen a big shift away from learning in class to learning online. Is this an advantage or disadvantage to the learner? What do you think? Is leisure learning important? If  leisure learning classes were to disappear altogether, would anything be lost?


  1. I think paperwork has destroyed a lot of enjoyment of learning. Even in public schools, the teachers are bogged down with paperwork that wears down the energy and enthusiasm they need for good teaching. As for "night school" . . . many years ago, after graduating from college, I signed up for an art class and a creative writing class, taught in the evenings at a local high school. There was no assessment, only good teaching and good learning. I agree that you can learn a lot online, (especially when doing research), but nothing beats the live interaction between teachers and students, and the bonding that develops between students with like interests.

    1. I so agree. The time spent doing pointless paperwork could be used so much more valuably. The students resent wasting writing time on form-filling, and assessment is difficult when each person has different aims for each piece of writing. Yet I do think it can be taught - that everyone can learn and be inspired to improve their skills.

  2. I'm currently writing a piece for my 'Yorkshire Memories' blog about a guitar evening class I took in Leeds in the 1970s, led by the legendary Eric Kershaw, which was a fantastic experience. I took a whole range of other classes around that time too. Having recently become a gentleman of leisure I began to think about taking classes once more, and am so disappointed to find so very little on offer. It's hard to believe so much has been axed. I've been looking at articles like yours and Sue Blackmore's 2009 experience at a sculpture class to understand why. It seems to me that whenever the government meddles in things it's always for the worse.

    1. Wow, this is probably one of the coolest tutorials I’ve seen. Need to get into this ASAP!

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