Summer schools: What's your course?

Summer is on its way - and thousands of people are planning to explore Renaissance painting, or become a better potholer. Philip Schofield reports on the wide choice of residential studies
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Each summer, thousands of people use part of their holidays to pursue a special interest and take part in a residential course of study. Some do so to develop their artistic or craft skills; some to study wildlife, political philosophy or the Florentine Renaissance. Others want to learn a foreign language, develop computing skills, explore the archaeology of Dartmoor, try dinghy sailing, improve their game of bridge or golf, or keep fit in retirement. The choice of topics is almost infinite.

Many courses are run by universities, using their own tutors. Some are run by local authority and private adult education colleges, public schools such as Marlborough College and Millfield, and the Snowdonia, Peak and Lake District National Park authorities. Others are run by the Field Studies Council, various sports bodies, hotels - even by private individuals.

Some distance learning courses, such as the degree courses of the Open University, include mandatory summer schools held on university campuses around Britain.

Many other universities also run summer schools. Some are vocational, such as those providing continuing professional education for teachers, run by Loughborough University's Department of Education. Other courses are on academic topics, and, although designed for university and college students, are open to the general public. These academic courses carry credits that can be transferred to other degree courses. However, people are free to choose whether or not they wish to complete the formal assessment needed to earn credits. Other university courses are purely recreational.

At Lancaster University, for example, this year's vocational courses include one for postgraduates planning an academic teaching career, and others on human resource development, environmental management systems, and environmental auditing. Academic subjects include Arthurian literature in the 20th century, comparative planetary science, ancient Greece, ethics, and early Christianity. Recreational courses include Georgian antiques, batik and painting on silk, "Lakeland walks for softies", and croquet.

Many universities offer courses drawing on their location. You can study Peak District railways at Manchester, Bloomsbury architecture at Birkbeck College, East Anglian folklore at Cambridge, the natural history of the West Country at Exeter, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Hugh Millar at St Andrews, and Scottish family history and many aspects of Scottish music and dance at Stirling.

Some also run overseas study courses. Birmingham University runs courses on the Renaissance in Florence, Art Nouveau and Modernism in Vienna, birds and natural history in south-west Spain, the Swiss Alpine landscape, and the lakeland and tundra of Finland. This autumn it is also running a two- week study tour of Southern China and the Pacific Rim.

Fourteen British and Irish universities now collaborate to produce a brochure offering 92 different one-week study holidays under the name of the "Summer Academy". Subjects range from Irish humour to life in ancient Egypt, from botanical illustration to discovering Scottish Castles. A 24-hour brochure service is available on 01227 470402.

Costs at university summer schools vary significantly, but those in the Summer Academy range from pounds 355 to pounds 440 including a week's accommodation, full board and all course-related excursions. Students usually stay in university halls of residence, and accommodation standards vary from modern rooms with en-suite facilities to traditional study bedrooms.

The Field Studies Council, an educational charity, offers more than 500 courses at its 11 centres in England and Wales. As might be expected, many relate to various aspects of natural history and conservation. Others cover creative writing, archaeology, mountain leadership, photography, railway history, yoga, gardens and gardening, painting and drawing, and bookbinding and other crafts.

Many centres are in historic buildings - such as Flatford Mill in Suffolk, which featured in many of John Constable's paintings. All offer simple accommodation, mostly in twin or shared bedrooms with washbasins. Toilets and shower are close by. Weekend courses cost from pounds 98, and one-week courses from pounds 242. The price includes full board, up to 10 hours of tuition a day, and all necessary equipment - including waterproof clothing and Wellington boots where needed.

Some courses are specifically designed for families and for unaccompanied young people. A free brochure not only lists all the courses and describes each centre, but also gives brief biographical details of each tutor. This is available from the Council's head office, on 01743 850674.

The Adult Residential Colleges Association brings together 27 institutions offering non-vocational adult residential courses. These institutions include LEA and privately run colleges.

Typical is Dillington House in Somerset, based in a 16th-century mansion, which offers courses on subjects as varied as paper making, the industrial history of the West Country, Japanese patchwork and Sashiko quilting, and a guitar summer school. Prices vary. A course from Sunday lunch time to breakfast on the following Saturday, in a shared twin or double en- suite room, will typically cost pounds 320. Non-residents pay pounds 180 for the same course.

There are also courses for those seeking tuition in sports, such as caving, climbing and mountaineering, golf and sailing. A typical example is the Grafham Water Centre, run by Cambridgeshire County Council. This offers dinghy sailing, windsurfing and powerboating courses recognised by the Royal Yachting Association.

The only comprehensive list of summer school courses is the Sunmer edition of Time to Learn, a directory of learning holidays published by the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education (NIACE). Although this is not a complete listing, the current edition, covering April to September, contains brief details of 3,000 courses. It includes a section on study tours and learning holidays in more than 30 countries abroad (not including those in various Scottish islands which, oddly, are also listed under "abroad"). The directory can be surprisingly hard to trace through libraries and bookshops, but is obtainable direct from NIACE at 21 De Montfort Street, Leicester LE1 7GE, for pounds 4.95 post free.

Many people on holiday are like Christopher Robin, who preferred "doing nothing"'. On the other hand, many prefer to combine relaxation with discovering new interests or developing existing enthusiasms. Whatever your interest, you are likely to find a suitable summer school somewhere.