Residential colleges offer a solution to those who want to escape family life, says Caitlin Davies

If you've ever tried combining studying with work, family and domestic chores, then you know how hard it can be. So, in Adult Learners' Week, how about taking another tack and packing your bags for a residential course where you are alone with your books, a tutor and like-minded colleagues?

Residential colleges for adult learners have been around for decades and attract 150,000 people annually in England and Wales. But, in the last couple of years, some have been forced to close because of lack of funding, and there is now a concerted drive to widen participation. As well as the popular weekend courses, many colleges now offer week-long summer courses, as well as mid-week and day courses. Clients tend to be women over the age of 50 for whom courses offer a chance for concentrated study.

The Adult Residential Colleges Association (ARCA) has 26 members offering 3524 courses. Arts and crafts are the most popular but Janet Dann, the ARCA secretary, is keen to emphasise the range of courses - science and ecology are on on offer as well as arts and crafts - and the variety of settings. Most learners are in it for sheer enjoyment, although some work towards qualifications, usually City and Guilds. The colleges are often Victorian houses in the country, and the emphasis is on personal development. An average weekend costs £110.

Sylvia David, a retired history teacher in her 70s, attends evening classes in London, but says residential courses hold a particular attraction. "I discovered Farncombe Estate in the Cotswolds quite by chance in a history magazine two years ago and I've done several art courses there. It's the most delightful setting and very sociable. Last time there were plenty of young people doing yoga."

Farncombe Estate is one of ARCA's newest members. During the week it's a conference centre and on the weekends an adult learning college. Courses include a countryside in fiction weekend (£130) and a one day introduction to journalism (£40). "I've seen people arrive on a Friday evening feeling very apprehensive as it may be the first thing they have done on their own since their husband died," says William Reddaway, the head of life-long learning. "But by Saturday lunchtime they have the sense of being part of a community."

Fifteen of the ARCA colleges are run by local authorities, others are charitable trusts or privately owned. The local authority colleges are inspected by the Adult Learning Inspectorate, while ARCA monitors the rest.

Benslow Music Trust in Hertfordshire is a charitable trust with residential music courses for adult amateur musicians at all levels. Its harpsichord weekend costs £170, and the Baroque dance weekend £160. There is an instrument loan scheme available, and a bursary fund for those with genuine financial difficulties. Benslow runs 125 courses and last year attracted 2,500 students. They tend to target the "silver market," explains the chief executive, Lisa Railton. These are retired people who regard the courses as mini-breaks. However, their harpsichord summer courses are popular among 18-year-olds.

Unlike Benslow, Pendrell Hall College near Wolverhampton receives funding from the local education authority. It runs short residential courses, such as in beadwork and digital photography, as well as family learning weekends when parents and children attend. It also offers courses for adults with learning difficulties and disabilities.

"Because the courses are residential, they are very intensive and you are away from the humdrum of everyday life," says the principal, David Evans. He compares them to the Prime Minister heading off to Chequers for a summit.

Because Pendrell Hall is funded, it's easier for it to widen participation than other colleges. Evans believes that everyone deserves the chance of continuing education. "You can get a prescription from a doctor to go to a gym, so why not a prescription for a college course to keep your brain healthy?"

For course details see ARCA or