Does the Government put enough money into lifelong learning? Grace McCann hears from three over-65s, who have found their lives transformed

Lifelong learning is a ministerial buzz-phrase. But is the Government putting its money where its mouth is? The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (Niace) is worried that it isn't. It has written to the Learning and Skills Council (LSC - the further-education funding body) to express concern that the LSC's recent funding proposals focus on vocational training to the detriment of learning for the joy of it. "Learning for personal development is good for our health," says Sue Cara, the director of programmes and policy at Niace. Next Wednesday, the LSC will publish its latest plans for adult learners - the Skills Strategy. "We're waiting with bated breath to see if there is anything in there to reflect the needs of older people," says Cara. Below three retirees make the case for learning.

Douglas Hassall, 79, first sat down at a keyboard in 1939. He was planning to learn typing skills to improve his job prospects. Then war broke out and he served in the Navy for five years. Douglas has recently completed a series of IT courses at City College Manchester. He features in an advertising campaign for the college and can be seen on buses and billboards in Manchester.

"I went down to a local hospital to see my brother and people there said: 'Hello Mr. Famous!' which was a little embarrassing.

"I retired at 65 and like to keep busy. I try to keep up with the news and it always mentioned the internet. I wasn't sure what it was, and thought: 'I'm getting left behind'.

"I was never one for writing when I was younger but I like word-processing because you can alter your mistakes. When I was in the forces, I used to write to my mother only once every six weeks. I can see how worrying that must have been now. Spreadsheets fascinate me because I worked for Greater Manchester Transport, allocating buses and drivers, and writing up schedules took me 10 days. I wish we had had spreadsheets in those days.

"I found learning difficult at first - it's easy to get discouraged. But as time goes on you don't need so much help from the tutor. My son and daughter both live in Australia. Last year my son had to be treated in Adelaide for cancer of the tongue and was unable to speak for a number of weeks. However e-mails proved invaluable as a means of communicating - I was able to have a twice-weekly update on his progress.

"One of my interests is ballroom dancing - my wife and I go every Tuesday. We knew a chap who produced leaflets about classes, with different fonts and a graphic of a dancing couple. I think it would be nice to do stuff like that and plan to take a graphic design course."

Lisa Wolfe, 83, lives in Manchester. She is Jewish and was born in Austria, from where she fled with her family to Britain in 1938 to escape Nazi persecution. A great-grandmother, she regularly takes day and weekend courses at Alston Hall, a council-run residential college in Longridge, Preston, where she was voted learner of the year in 1998.

"I went into courses seriously when my husband died in 1994. It's my lifeline. When you're living on your own you need companionship, and if you can learn something at the same time it's a double bonus. I went to a music appreciation course at Alston Hall at first then started to do everything that was going. I'm very into music and history. I went to a Puccini weekend and what I don't know about Puccini now isn't worth knowing! I was a bit poorly last winter and don't do as much as I did. I'm very arthritic and my fingers are a bit crippled. But I do the folk-dancing - I'm determined to keep going, I like it so much.

"Alston Hall has courses over Christmas called the Twelve Days of Christmas. I went to one about Elizabethan England. A tutor dressed up as Elizabeth I and lifted up her skirts to show us what sort of stockings she would have worn - something that I would not have thought about before.

"I went on a course to Hadrian's Wall for five days - that was lovely. And later this year we're going to Shropshire to see some old churches. Some people say once you've seen one you've seen them all, but I don't agree. Even the cows in a field have different faces - I look at things in more detail because they interest me. You can always learn one thing you didn't know before."

Monica Still, 70, didn't receive any formal education until she was nine. She lives in Margate and has been taking evening classes at Thanet College for the past 10 years, gaining GCSEs in human biology, maths, psychology and law, and an A-level in law. She has just taken an A-level in English at Canterbury College.

"I was brought up by a mum who suffered from poor mental health. It was only when the school board caught up with us that she sent me to school. I was completely ignorant and put in with five-year-olds with an abacus. I learnt to read at 12.

"Ten years ago I went on holiday to Germany and thought: 'I know, I'll learn German'. The class wasn't on when I was free but what I could take up was human biology. To my extreme delight I got a C. I should have done this years ago because I could have had a career. Dare I say I love law and maybe I could have aspired to being a solicitor. I've loved studying. The thing is it's a challenge and when you do well it's such a thrill and helps your confidence.

"Some people don't converse - they lecture. Now I can stop them and say what I think. Before, I was so cowed. I would say to anyone who thinks, 'I can't go back to school, I'll look silly', you won't - there have been people of all ages in my classes.

"I've had three children and one daughter was a paranoid schizophrenic who died in an accident. These studies give me something else to concentrate on.

"Going to college can be a terrific social thing. I am now firm friends with a psychology lecturer. We go to musicals and plays - he's teaching me a bit of culture."

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