'... and then 500 people joined in the Cowboy Swing'

Learning Account
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The Independent Online
Mary Clarke of Birmingham Adult Education Service, is the organiser of The Big Learn, Birmingham's launch of Adult Education Week, and a mass national line dance.

She kicks off our new weekly series about the mass of education that goes on beyond school and university walls, education which will play a crucial role in the Government's plan to provide us all with Lifelong Long Learning Accounts.

The week before the mass line dance just merged into one long working day. It was so frantic, I didn't even notice my own 49th birthday, which came and went without any celebrations.

At the start of the week, we had meetings with the police in preparation for The Big Learn in Birmingham city centre on Saturday. The event involved bands, stalls and street entertainment as well as hundreds of dancers, and the police wanted to make sure we had our crowd-control techniques sorted out.

As seven of us walked the site in Victoria Square on Tuesday to check fire-escape routes and bomb-alert precautions, I felt more as if I was putting on a rock festival than an adult learning week. In Birmingham, the city council adult education and libraries services run the celebrations jointly with the further education colleges and universities.

After months of planning, we were now down to the nitty-gritty of making sure there were enough fluorescent tabards for the stewards, testing the PA system and synchronising the helium balloons ready for release.

Meanwhile, I was still taking calls from people all round the country wanting to take part in the line dance record attempt. The idea was to launch Adult Learners' Week nationally and get into the Guinness Book of Records with simultaneous dances to the same music all over Britain at 11.30am on Saturday. People were ringing up from Rotherham or Liverpool worrying about where to get the music or St John ambulance on stand-by.

As the big day got nearer, I got more and more twitchy. What if no one turned up, or it poured with rain? As I drove home late each evening to eat yet another takeaway with my long-suffering husband I would look at other people sitting in their cars and think: "How can you be so calm?"

"Black Thursday" was definitely the lowest point. First the Chinese brush- painting tutor who was going to be doing demonstrations pulled out, then a whole troop of tap dancers chickened out after realising they really were going to have to perform in public.

Saturday dawned without thunderstorms, and the square looked glorious, with hundreds of decorated market stalls promoting every kind of education classes, along with 700 helium balloons. People were drawn in like magnets, and the stewards began to shepherd the line dancers into a giant enclosure. At 11.30, we had a mass countdown, and then about 500 people - from beginners to experienced dancers - joined in the Cowboy Swing.

Whether we make it into the record books or not, it was a fantastic sight - everybody was learning something and there were tutors and students and members of the public all enjoying something together. I thought it was a tremendous advertisement for adult learning.

Interview by Lucy Ward

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