People looking to learn new skills have more flexible options than ever before, finds James Morrison

The term "adult learner" conjures up images of computer-literate octogenarians. But, with 30 per cent of adults studying outside work, and a million adults enrolling on courses each year, a wide variety of people are benefiting from adult education in the UK.

Whether you're seeking to change occupation or to learn skills to help you in your existing job, you'll find a variety of options, from massage and homeopathy to hairdressing, accountancy and bookkeeping.

The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE) is campaigning for better training opportunities for older workers, but thanks to a growing emphasis on lifelong learning, it is possible for people who do not have GCSEs in basic subjects such as English and maths to access subsidised courses. Financially, more options are now available than before. For example, a remortgaging service, Learning Loans for Homeowners, has been launched by the online bank that allows people to free up property equity.

The Government's Skills for Life strategy is spawning fully funded courses in literacy, numeracy and computing to improve the prospects of under-skilled workers and to meet the demands of employers. Many initiatives favour specific age groups and industries, but there is help for marginalised learners, from free basic-skills training for women in low-paid public-sector jobs to English as a Second or Other Language courses for immigrants.

In addition to tertiary colleges, which offer part-time and full-time courses, there are also several voluntary organisations. An established UK adult-learning provider is the National Extension College (NEC), a charity formed in the early 1960s, initially as a pilot study for the Open University. Today, it offers a growing menu of GCSEs and A-levels, and boasts 10,000 new enrollers a year - 60 per cent of them women.

The NEC's ethos is to help adults "fit learning into their lives" by studying from home. Its most popular programmes include diplomas in management and child care - the latter inspired, in part, by Ofsted's introduction of national professional standards in childminding and nursery care. "People realise that getting a degree is expensive and that there are ways to improve their skills while in the workplace, rather than studying beforehand," an NEC spokesman says.

Another non-profit organisation committed to lifelong learning is the Workers' Educational Association (WEA), founded in 1903, which has 85,000 adult learners and offers 3,500 courses. Many of the WEA's programmes are targeted at low earners, and those with little or no prior education. But it also appeals to those looking to study subjects that are no longer available at further education colleges because of the Government's increasing emphasis on the 16- to 19-year-old age group and on vocational training.

"We don't do much flower-arranging or line-dancing," explains Peter Templeton, the WEA's director of education, quality and strategy. "We're largely involved in targeted learning for specific groups, as well as promoting liberal education in subjects such as history and literature."

In terms of "leisure learning", the WEA's success rate for improving people's life chances through education is impressive. It offers a number of options in partnership with the trade union Unison, including a training programme for volunteer school helpers, 60 per cent of whose intake have gone on to qualify as paid classroom assistants.

One older learner benefiting from the charity's help is Trevor Jones, 77, a retired mill worker who recently completed a basic literacy course at Windmill Hill City Farm in Bristol. He is now studying introductory-level IT and Photoshop.

"I had no education," he recalls. "A couple of years ago, I decided I wanted to do a literacy course. I've noticed a huge difference: my spelling and grammar have improved, and I can write letters with confidence."

For general information on adult learning, visit To find out about specific options, visit or For details on the Learning Loans for Homeowners scheme, visit