Summer Schools: All you ever wanted to learn but never dared to study: Sarah Strickland looks at the increasing variety and growing popularity of summer school courses

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The Independent Online
FOR thousands of people, the thought of summer school brings a wistful glint to the eye and a note of nostalgic longing to the throat.

The uninitiated may not be aware, as they pile on to aeroplanes for their holiday abroad, that colleges, schools, universities and country mansions all over their home country will be opening their doors to those who wish to follow an interest or activity of their choice. Some schools have a dedicated following: people who return year after year to the same venue to try another course, or do the same one.

Shirley Harrop first went to Lancaster University's summer school 11 years ago when she was 48. She has been going every year since then and intends to continue going for as long as she can. Sometimes she went with her husband, before their divorce, sometimes alone, always doing the same course in music appreciation.

'I'm not the sort of person who can sit in a deckchair on a beach for days - I like to have something interesting to do,' she says. 'Neither of us had ever been to university, and we weren't sure what to expect. But we were both stunned.' She made more friends when she went on her own. It also meant that in the difficult years during her divorce she had something to look forward to. 'Lancaster did a lot for me at that time. I knew all the people who worked there and got a lot of support from them and the friends I had made.'

Summer schools began more than 100 years ago to bring education to unskilled manual workers, the unemployed and the poor. Now they are a burgeoning industry catering for all ages, social classes and abilities. For institutions, they are a way of making money during the long summer vacation and displaying what they have on offer to prospective students and their parents. The recession has proved an advantage - with more people unable to afford holidays abroad, they have a fairly captive audience.

An extraordinary range of classes and activities is available, from every kind of indoor and outdoor sport to serious academic subjects and obscure and eccentric hobbies: croquet, flying, sculpture, saxophone, Japanese flower-arranging and hot-air ballooning among others. If you are not sure what you want, perhaps you could try 'self-doubt' or 'change your life' or even 'personality development' - three of the 400 courses offered this year at Millfield summer school in Street, Somerset.

Courses can last from a day to a month or more; most offer accommodation, and prices vary enormously. Many places, such as Lancaster and Millfield, offer family holidays, where parents can bring the children and see as much or as little of them as they like. Summer school is ideal for the single parent or anyone holidaying alone. Janet Nelson, marketing officer for Lancaster University's summer school, says about 20 per cent of their clients are single adults, who do not have to pay any supplement since nearly all the rooms are single.

April Halton is head of residential adult education for Buckinghamshire County Council, which runs a popular adult-only summer school at Missenden Abbey, near Great Missenden. For adults who come alone, she says, the school 'represents a chance for them to be themselves and form strong friendships'. It can be a heady experience for those who are perhaps breaking away from family for the first time in their forties or fifties and discovering talents and abilities they never knew they had.

'Learning and doing things together is so energising,' says Ms Halton. 'It can make a positive contribution to people's health - they go back to their jobs often having established what they are looking for in life and what is important to them.'

Course organisers are aware of the sort of anxieties and apprehensions people returning to study on their own might have. 'We do everything we can to make it easy for them,' says Ms Halton. 'People have so many memories of how boring, hard or competitive studying was and they may think they are going to be shown up by the others, but once they start they realise how supportive everyone is of each other.'

Coming on summer school can, she says, be rather like experiencing an ideal form of society - where people have common interests and treat each other with respect and care. 'When they leave, they take away a great belief and confidence in themselves.'

Mary de Jode went to Missenden alone for the first time when she was 57 and her children had grown up. 'I had spent about 40 years wishing to learn about painting, drawing and ceramics but had done nothing about it,' she says. 'I took the plunge feeling apprehensive, diffident and totally lacking in confidence. You always fear that you are laying yourself open to people judging you, and you assume that everyone else will know how to do it.' Two years later, she has had her work exhibited and is looking forward to returning to Missenden.

To anyone considering going on a course alone, she advises: 'Just do it. It puts enough charge in your batteries to keep you young. If you find you are good at something, it spills over into other areas of your life. It makes you feel like a different person.'

Leaving summer school can be 'an awful wrench' and many spend the rest of the year looking forward to next time, she says.

For anyone interested in trying a course, the Independent Schools Information Service has produced a brochure on summer schools, and the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education publishes a guidebook to many of the courses on offer.

'Spring and Summer Schools Supplement', pounds 1, from the Independent Schools Information Service, 56 Buckingham Gate, London SW1E 6AG. 'Time to Learn', pounds 4.25, from the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, 19b De Montfort Street, Leicester LE1 7GE.

(Photograph omitted)