Summertime, and learning is easy

Art, geology, music, natural history. You name it, you can study it at a summer school, says Mary Braid
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The Independent Online

Summer and school are not words many children would gladly put together. But every year summer schools spring up across Britain to educate and entertain thousands of adults and children. The range is dazzling, from art classes aimed at pensioners to mock murder investigations that introduce kids to forensic science. And of course there are the ubiquitous English language classes that lure foreign children and adults to Britain, particularly its sunny – if they are lucky – south coast.

Summer and school are not words many children would gladly put together. But every year summer schools spring up across Britain to educate and entertain thousands of adults and children. The range is dazzling, from art classes aimed at pensioners to mock murder investigations that introduce kids to forensic science. And of course there are the ubiquitous English language classes that lure foreign children and adults to Britain, particularly its sunny – if they are lucky – south coast.

For the summer, at least, universities and colleges abandon stuffy lecture theatres. Along with weekend field trips around Britain, the University of Nottingham's School of Education is taking summer-school students to places such as Vienna, Rome, Madrid and Toledo to breathe life into art appreciation, music, geology, natural history and other subjects. Most take the expert-led trips for fun, although 10 per cent use them as credits towards final accreditation for qualifications up to degree level.

The school administrator, Sylvia Stephens, says the study tours tend to attract the middle-aged and retired, and more women than men. "They have been accountants or lawyers, when they were really interested in something else." The combination of purpose and company also appeals. "People want to be with like-minded people," she says, describing how in the small groups of 10-25, people quickly become friends and often return together. "And we do have the occasional romance."

Ms Stephens wants to see more people in their thirties and forties taking tours. She believes many prefer expert guidance to strolling aimlessly through some cathedral.

Love of art also brings foreigners to Britain. Glasgow School of Art has been running a summer school for years, and its Charles Rennie Mackintosh course is a big attraction for overseas students. "We get a lot of Americans," says the organiser, Gordon Webb. "But we also get Europeans; for some reason Italians are the biggest group."

GSA offers week-long, studio-based courses in drawing, painting, portrait, landscape, oils, watercolours and life drawing, plus jewellery-making, ceramics, stained-glass, sculpture and others. Beginners are as welcome as accomplished artists, and there are children's classes too; the minimum age is seven. When selecting a summer-school course, ask about cheap rooms. Like other schools, GSA offers accommodation in student halls.

Mr Webb admits that Edinburgh's art establishments are GSA's main summer competitors; they tie in with the international festival and fringe. In a competitive market, wise customers consider the charms of the town or city they study in, and Mr Webb offers up Glasgow's galleries. "It's a lively city, so much better," he says. For those unfamiliar with the Edinburgh-Glasgow divide, that means as "so much better than Edinburgh".

The Courtauld Institute of Art in London also has architectural attractions; it is part of the magnificent Somerset House, on the Thames. Though the Courtauld's overseas market is growing, most of its summer students are from Britain. This year, for the first time, the Courtauld offers study weekends in Bruges, Rome, Venice and Paris.

For summer students who stay put at the institute, says the organiser Cecily Hennessy, the Courtauld offers site visits outside London as well as the experience of studying at an academic institution with a gallery attached. Eighteen courses cover everything from ancient to modern art.

By far the greatest summer-school attraction for foreign children is the language school. Bell Educational Trust runs English courses for overseas children and adults in residential colleges and schools across the south of England. Children, from age seven, are taught the language through a blend of formal learning and activity.

Dr Diane Phillips, the head of academic management, is hoping for an easier year than 2001, when foot-and-mouth, the strong pound and BSE made things difficult. As she points out, the English-language summer school has to ensure its participants' safety. Bell, whose courses are accredited by the British Council, has worked to correct misconceptions and dispel parental fears about their children's safety in Britain. It aims to make sure that children go home happy to associate school and summer.

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