A little more learning is a good thing

Whether you're looking for qualifications or just something to pass the time, local institutes have a course for you. By Cherrill Hicks
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IF YOU'RE in need of a few bob and happen to live in south-east London, a new leisure class being set up in Lewisham may be just the thing. Put on by the local authority in time for the millennium (when there will, of course, be a flood of visitors to these parts), the course will teach you how to go about having paying guests in the home. It covers how to cope with having strangers around, how to decorate, what to cook, what to charge - and much, much more.

These days, leisure classes have expanded well beyond flower arranging. Lewisham's adult education service, for instance, puts on an astonishing 350 leisure classes every week, and a further 320 accredited classes (leading to a qualification), ranging in subjects from flamenco to shiatsu to creative metalwork.

But for those who want it, the traditional type of leisure class still exists. Martin Boorer, lead officer for adult education in Lewisham, points out that, among the borough's older residents, classes in dressmaking, knitting and short mat bowls are still firm favourites. "We get a lot of active older people for whom leisure classes are part of a genuine process of lifelong learning," he says. "Our oldest ever student was over 100 - and she was doing knitting."

And even some of the most domestic of classes can have hidden depths. "Porcelain dollmaking is not just about making the dolls, but dressing them in the correct historical costume - our students often do a lot of detailed research," says Mr Boorer.

He also recalls that, to celebrate the last International Women's Day, the sugarcraft class did two detailed icings. Both showed the contents of a woman's handbag - one of 50 years ago and the other contemporary. "The results were astonishing," he added.

The younger age groups, however, tend to favour subjects with which "they might better themselves", as Mr Boorer puts it. Classes on intermediate technology are among the most popular: Lewisham has 18 courses about computers, including an introduction to spreadsheets, surfing the net and desktop publishing.

"Many of those doing IT courses are mothers who use our creche facilities, with a view to returning to work when the children are older," explained Mr Boorer. Art work, pottery, stained glass, dance and car maintenance are also popular. Health and fitness is another growth area, with classes on topics ranging from the Alexandra Technique to herbal medicine.

Not all leisure classes are run by local authorities: colleges of further education, universities and sixth form colleges play a major role in adult education, although they tend to concentrate more on vocational courses leading to a qualification. Bexhill sixth-form college, for example, has developed a range of evening and part-time classes over the last five years, including yoga, sports and languages.

"We wanted to be a community college offering a range of educational opportunities, and we are aiming at about 600 enrolments next year," says Paul Ashdown, principal at Bexhill. As in inner London, the fastest growing area is information technology, although foreign languages, especially French and Spanish, are also popular.

Several colleges are now taking steps to attract those who might be reluctant to commit themselves to a whole course. Carshalton College of further education, for example, has set up the Monday Club, which its marketing manager Paul Spratley says is based on research showing that for most people Monday nights is a "dead time". The club offers self-contained two-hour slots in about 200 topics, in areas as diverse as pastry-making, getting started on the Internet, Thai cookery and calligraphy.

"No one has to make a long term commitment," says Mr Spratley. "They can just have a go - but they can always come back for more. A lot of people doing the two hours are now showing interest in longer term courses."

Wilberforce Sixth Form College in Hull has gone a step further to reach people who would not normally go to an evening class. With the help of funds from Humberside Tech, the college has organised leisure classes in topics such as French, line dancing and aromatherapy in several local factories.

"We hold them in the employees' shift and lunch breaks," says Trevor Wray, assistant principal at Wilberforce. "The employers have been very co-operative in providing facilities, and the classes are completely free. The popular classes are basic computing and languages."

For the more well-heeled, a growing number of leisure courses are based away from home: they include cooking in Italy, whitewater rafting in America, and painting in Cornwall. Challenge Educational Service for instance, offers leisure courses in one of the UK's favourite holiday destinations - France. According to the blurb these "combine language training and an appreciation of French culture with the opportunity to explore the Bordeaux vineyards". The one-week course offers accommodation with a French host family, 15 hours of French language tuition, tours and wine-tasting in the vineyards as well as visits to the local chateaux.

And for anyone interested in making leisure into a full-time career, there are a growing number of accredited courses in leisure, tourism and travel management. Birmingham College of Food, Tourism and Creative Studies, for example, diversified from hotel and catering into leisure management about seven years ago, it being such a growth area, according to Bob Cameron, leisure programmes co-ordinator.

Birmingham's latest degree, in adventure tourism management, is thought to be the first of its kind in the country. "Activity based holidays are becoming increasingly popular," says Mr Cameron "there is a huge demand for these courses."