SUMMER SCHOOLS / Back on course: Adult education covers everything from karma to sewage, says Jonathan Sale

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The Independent Culture
IMAGINE what would happen if some swivel-eyed, right-wing think-tank were to take over the universities (just joking, folks). It would privatise them, for a start, and insist they should be financially self-supporting. It would encourage 'customers' to attend only at weekends and on holidays, so as not to interfere with their full-time working.

Yet the think-tankers would be reinventing the wheel. This network of study centres already exists. In the latest Time to Learn (pounds 4.25, National Organisation for Adult Continuing Education) there are enough courses to make an all-round Renaissance man and woman out of any two-day student. On one April weekend, the Old Rectory near Pulborough, Sussex, offers a course in bricklaying, another in watercolour painting and a third in 'Making your own stockmarket decisions'. On the same weekend in June, Wedgwood Memorial College near Stoke-on-Trent does both 'Pushing the bike on to the agenda' and 'Wittgenstein'.

Entry qualifications are generous, that is, usually non-existent, apart from the ability to pay pounds 50- pounds 140 for a weekend, around pounds 300 for a week and, in the case of Schumacher College in Devon, pounds 1,200 for a month of 'Ecology and technology'.

'Beginners' is a common description of the kind of person welcome; 'Complete beginners' can have a crack at the glass engraving weekend at West Dean College, Chichester, which clashes with 'Singing for the tone deaf' at Westham College near Warwick. This sounds like my kind of music-making, just as 'Drawing and painting for the petrified' at Urchfont Manor College, Devizes, is my kind of art.

'Windows for wallies' (computers, not buildings) suggests that Missenden Abbey in Buckinghamshire is not exactly catering for Bill Gates or Clive Sinclair. The same organisation offers the endearingly titled 'I wish I could write'.

'First fungus weekend' at Juniper Hall Field Centre, Dorking, gives the impression that you don't need a PhD in botany to apply. Those who turn up on the 'Creepie crawlie weekend' at Preston Montford Field Centre in Shrewsbury are clearly not expected to be leading researchers in the field. The main qualification for the Field Studies Council Overseas tour - 'In the steps of Charles Darwin: Explorations of Ecuador and the Galapagos' - is having upwards of pounds 2,800 to hand.

The more confident (NB Cornish Study Holidays, Penzance, offers 'increasing self-confidence in social and business relationships') will think about graduating to 'Recorders nearly from scratch' at Knuston Hall, Wellingborough, or 'Watercolour for the not quite beginner' at West Dean College. Also at Chichester, the Earnley Concourse has 'Speak Italian higher intermediate'. That is a high-living course, as I noticed when I was attending jazz lectures on the same weekend: students were fined if they spoke English at mealtimes and all proceeds went towards the communal wine cellar.

Mountain Hall in Queensbury, Yorkshire, also has its high points, not least its 1,200ft altitude, a good situation from which to look at UFOs, psychic awareness, fortune-telling and 'Astrological transits'. Those who join its 'reincarnation and karma' workshops will be able to say, 'In a previous life I came here to 'Tarot - an introduction'.' It also offers dowsing, as does Hawkwood College, Stroud.

Meanwhile, Ammerdown Centre near Bath provides instruction in 'Walking in a sacred manner'. 'Silent retreat' is also on the curriculum but no details are to hand about how any lectures are conducted. Creative Holidays of Newlyn in 'magical Cornwall' teaches, as well as cookery and shoe-making, a week of 'Zero balancing - body energy with body structure'.

Why do the holiday activities at Millfield School in Somerset include a course in karaoke singing? This art form is completely ruined if you do it properly. A better bet is 'Change your life', at the same address, or 'Living with more meaning' at Braziers Adult College, Ipsden, Oxfordshire. That will provide raw material for the 'Write your life story' exercise at Westham College. Here too is one of the most improbable courses taught anywhere outside the Australian sub-continent: 'Boomerang flying'. No, I do not know if the students keep coming back.

Those are some of the wackier courses to be featured soon at a study centre near you. Others are safely unwacky. Missenden Abbey offers 'Wonderful waistcoats and exotic accessories' and 'Create your own felt hat'. Social engineering it ain't. Like 'Alternative sewage systems' at the Centre for Alternative Technology, Machynlleth and 'Introduction to arable farming' at Slapton Ley Field Centre, Kingsbridge, these are either exactly what you want - or not.

Many of us are drawn towards less specialised subjects. A week of 'Follow that stream' at Newton Manor House, Swanage, is more my speed. So is 'A couple of walks amongst the rocks' at Malham Tarn Field Centre, Settle.

'All this and heaven too' is the Old Rectory's week on literature and Utopia. At university it would have been called 'A professor spoils the good bits of Utopian writings and then sets an exam paper about them,' but here I heard a weekend lecturer turn a work by Sir Philip Sydney into a wonderful discourse on life, the universe and everything 20th-century. The student with her hand most frequently in the air was an English teacher at a girls' secondary school, who, you would have thought, might have wanted a change on her weekend off. 'Ships in bottles' at The Gateway, Shrewsbury, springs to mind. -

(Photograph omitted)