Over-65s revive joys of learning: Changes in education are encouraging pensioners to re-enter the classroom. Fran Abrams reports

WHEN Edward J Crimmins accidentally poisoned himself with a piece of half-cooked fish after his wife died, he started a chain of events that changed his life.

Mr Crimmins, now 76, enrolled on a cookery course and became one of a growing band of pensioners re-entering education. According to a survey published today, the number of over-65s taking GCSE exams has risen by one-third since 1989.

Many older people are learning alongside 15- and 16-year-olds, but Mr Crimmins joined his local further education college. As well as cookery and word processing, he took GCSEs in maths, English and history. In November last year, while shopping for ingredients to make a Spanish omelette at evening class, he met his second wife Molly. They married five weeks later.

Mr Crimmins, a retired instrument engineer, had never taken any exams until he went back to college. 'I was very worried because I was 72 at the time, and I wondered how I would fit in with the young. But I found I fitted in very well and, in the course of time, became a sort of grandfather figure.'

Mr Crimmins has now been on seven cookery courses, including two in microwave cooking. 'I was top of the class in all my cookery classes, but now my wife won't let me into the kitchen,' he said.

George Turnbull, spokesman for the Southern Examining Group, which conducted the survey, said that this year more than 400 students over 65 took GCSEs with the board, one of five in England and Wales. Regular surveys in the 1980s showed numbers remaining steady at about 270, but they have risen rapidly since the last one in 1989.

Mr Turnbull said the rise was largely due to falling rolls and to local management of schools, which links funding to pupil numbers and which has forced schools to encourage adults to study. 'There are changes taking place in schools which mean they have to seek business. Older people can now go into schools and sit alongside 15- and 16 year-olds, or they can go to college to pursue something they have longed to do. In some cases, it is probably adding years to their lives,' he said.

Sally Greengross, director of Age Concern England, said that the new opportunities for older people should be welcomed, especially as there had been fears that they would be affected by recent cuts in the adult education service.