Education is more than a competition for qualifications, as the growing popularity of summer schools proves, says Diana Hinds

If the winter months are the time when distance learners study on their own at home in front of their computers, the summer months present many opportunities for them to get out and enjoy themselves. Summer schools all over the country offer the chance not only to learn, but to mix socially, and, in some cases, to deepen cultural understanding.

Nancy Nicolson first sampled the University of Stirling's summer school programme in 1980, as a primary school teacher "seeking something lovely to do in the summertime". She was attracted by a course led by one of her favourite singers of Scottish traditional music, Jean Redpath, and so enjoyed herself that she found herself returning to Stirling for the next 10 summers.

"When I began, I was quite sure I wasn't a singer," she says. "But since then I have appeared on some very good stages in Scotland, singing Scottish traditional music. I still don't read music, but I do compose."

She took early retirement from teaching, and now works as education officer at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, with special responsibility for the Celtic Connections programme, a job which she says arose directly out of her experience at the Stirling summer school. "I'm now creating more opportunities for learning than I was ever allowed to do in the confines of a classroom."

The Stirling University summer school, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, grew out of a concern, in the Seventies, that young people were not being encouraged to keep up Scotland's musical traditions. It began with a fiddle course, and has now mushroomed to take in over 30 courses in Scottish music and dance, fiddle, piping and clarsach (small harp), as well as Scottish history and landscape painting.

The summer school has not only produced many skilled Scottish musicians, but has also attracted a strong American following (somewhat reduced in the last two years by world events). Sociability is the key to this kind of cultural learning, says Nancy Nicolson: "It's really about people in a social setting. This music appears on platforms, but its real genesis is with you and me in society."

The University of Wales, Bangor, is doing something rather similar for Welsh culture in its summer school programme. Its week-long courses include Art, Artists and Architecture in North Wales: 18th Century to Present Day, More Roads and Rails: Industrial Heritage of North Wales, and Life and Landscape Drawing and Painting in Snowdonia. A course on the Music of Wales ranges from Celtic bards and harpers to the Eisteddfod tradition and the development of religious and choral music - and includes field trips to key locations and performances by local musicians. The University of Wales is also offering three-week courses for adults who want to improve their Welsh, from beginner level upwards. More than 180 have signed up for this summer.

"Learning Welsh is almost an industry in Wales now, because of demographic and political changes," says Meri Huws, in the university's department of lifelong learning. "There is a recognition that having communication skills in Welsh is socially and professionally useful these days."

Language learning takes a rather different slant at Essex University, which is repeating its highly-successful Russian summer school this year. "There is such an interesting range of people here, and it's a great social event," says Larissa Wymer, the Russian-born course leader. Students on this course range from age nine to 80, and include those studying Russian at school (one came from Eton last year) and those teaching Russian up to A-level. Tutors come from Russian universities, and from the Moscow International Institute. But language learning is not the only item on the menu here.

"We also teach the culture. We dance, we sing songs," says Larissa Wymer. "Some of them dance in such a funny way, but they enjoy themselves so much - it's great!"

A wide-ranging lecture programme looks at, for example, aspects of Russian law, the economic situation, religion and filmmaking (there are plenty of Tarkovsky videos available). Even cultural eating gets a look in, with a British barbecue and a traditional Russian meal on offer.

"Generally, British people are very shy and come on the course expecting purely the academic prize," says Larissa Wymer. "But the social events and the concerts are an important part of the summer school."