As the trend for brain-training and self improvement gathers strength, more adults than ever are signing up to go back to school. And during Adult Learners’ Week hundreds of people across Surrey discovered how easy it is to change their lives.
The initiative is aimed at those who want to improve their knowledge, gain more qualifications or improve their job prospects but wonder how to fit study around work and family life.
North East Surrey College of Technology (Nescot) in Ewell, which has over 40 years of experience in adult education, understands the demands of life outside college and tailors many of its courses and timetables to fit the needs of adult students.
Students like Lee Clift, 33, from Epsom, who combines running a highly successful construction business with raising a young family.
For many years Lee, who left school at 14, developed strategies to hide his difficulties with reading and writing. ‘I would speak to people on the phone and if they asked me to confirm something with a letter or email I knew it just wasn’t going to happen.
‘I would get so frustrated. I knew what I wanted to say but didn’t know how to structure it. Or I would try to write an email but have to change what I wanted to say because I couldn’t spell the word. In the end it wouldn’t make sense and I’d give up. It was losing me business and my self esteem.’
Lee, who in every other respect is a confident and capable man, struggled on in this way for years until several things combined to make him take action.
While trying pick up some Spanish on holiday, Lee realised just how much knowledge he was missing. When people tried to explain to me about nouns and verbs, like in English, I had no idea what they were talking about. But that was when I realised there were rules in languages that I could learn, there was structure.’
The holiday also gave Lee time to think about his life and realise how much his lack of confidence in this area was affecting him. ‘What people don’t realise is how much time and energy goes into working around the problem. In the meantime, everyone else is getting further and further on, what with technology and email and everything. The gap is getting wider.’
But it was becoming a father that gave Lee the final push he needed. ‘I knew I wanted better for my family and that I could do it. Verbally I had no problems and my interests have always been wide ranging.’
Lee went to a university and asked them about an anthropology course. All was going well until they set him an assessment test. Once again Lee found himself with a head full of ideas but no way to organise them on paper.
‘That university might have taken me but I knew I needed to go back to basics. In my work you need to get the foundations right and this was the same,’ he said.
So Lee signed up for a Basic Skills evening course at Nescot. ‘From the first day I knew I had made the right decision. It was completely different to school. I was in a room with people like me and we were there because we wanted to be.’
Nescot runs short courses with no entry requirements to improve adult numeracy, literacy and English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL). All lead to an accredited qualification and many are heavily subsidised. The courses are designed to both dramatically improve students’ chances in the job market and to open up access to higher education.
At an ESOL cultural afternoon on Tuesday 20th May, students showed off their prowess by giving presentations to the class about their home countries and splitting into teams for a quiz about British popular culture. Tutors had also asked each student to prepare and bring in a dish from their national cuisine and everyone tucked into the spectacular results.
‘It’s a wonderful way to get to know everyone a bit better and understand each other’s cultures. And you should see the food! Everyone strives to outdo one another and it’s always a glorious spread,’ said Janice Davis, Head of Nescot’s Skills for Life Department.
The class itself was unanimous in their praise for the course and, above all, their tutors.
Gurbir Singh Grewal, from India, said, ‘It's a good way of learning and the teachers are friendly. They sort out your problems. I like this college so much I am starting a business course here as well. It is a welcoming place.’
Hani Shaker Mohsin, who arrived from Iraq seven months ago, had improved so much he gave a presentation to his class in English. ‘When I arrived in the class I could not say ‘hello’ or, ‘thank you’. I could not make friends with people. Now I feel more confident, I can start to make some English friends,’ he says.
And Lee has not only seen his business take off but every aspect of his life has improved. ‘The other day my parents were mis-sold a bed. I fired off a cross letter and bang! Money back, grovelling apology, it was fantastic!
‘I’m also so much more confident when speaking to people as well as writing. I love throwing in unusual words and seeing if people understand them.’
Lee has discovered some unexpected personal benefits too, ‘I love it,’ he says, ‘I love the language and the words, where they come from and the history behind them. Words from the Empire and other languages, new slang and technology, it’s a passion for me now.’
Lee is so delighted by the world that has opened up to him he has signed up for an English GCSE and is on course for a top grade this summer.
‘It’s a massive commitment at my age but I’m not in it for the same reasons as the school kids. They’re there to get their grades, I’m learning for the sake of it.’
As Lee says, courses specifically for adults are vitally important for those who missed out on education the first time around.
‘That first course, where we were all the same, all wanting to be there. It was a great group with a tutor who really understood us.’
Diana Baroti, from Hungary, agreed ‘We are learning here. I have met new people and I feel more confident and strong in the rest of my life.’
Danny Blaszczyk, Lee’s tutor and Assistant Head of Nescot’s Skills for Life Department, said, ‘The difference with adults is that it’s not just the reading and writing. I call it social literacy, you see their confidence in all areas just take off.’
The part-time students at Nescot also benefit from all the support on offer to full-timers, including on-site counsellors, specialist career advice, medical staff, and financial advice. This means students don’t just gain a new qualification, but also expert advice on using it to change their lives. The college also provides distance learning with its virtual college site, which students can use to speak to tutors and other members of their course.
For information on the full range of courses and to book a place, contact the Advice and Recruitment team on 020 8394 3038.