Taking time for art

I’ve just caught up with a report created last year, by Daisy Fancourt and Saoirse Finn, that confirmed something I’ve long-believed: we should all be actively participating in arts activities. I’ve not read the whole one hundred and thirty-three pages of the WHO (World Health Organisation) publication, the summaries have been enough.

Results from over 3000 studies identified a major role for the arts in the prevention of ill health, promotion of health, and management and treatment of illness across the lifespan. 

At the moment, as isolation becomes a watchword for so many of us, this might be even more relevant than it seemed when it was researched and written. After all, if we’re going to get confined to homes, we’ll need to find things to do.

‘I’m going to catch up on a lot of reading,’ Judy says, echoing my own initial thoughts.

Anna wants to try an embroidery kit she was given a couple of Christmases ago. ‘I’ll be able to concentrate without interruptions,’ she tells us.

Here in the UK, we’re still free to move about unless we show symptoms. That doesn’t mean everyone is continuing as usual. A lot of people who are vulnerable, or in close contact with someone vulnerable, are already opting to limit their contact with the general public.

The majority of the rest of us have adopted a Lady Macbeth approach to hygiene, and are practicing safe distances as we wait for the next development. Journalists looking for a fresh angle for discussion are beginning to consider the perils of isolation, as if it’s a new thing.

I suppose it will be for many of us. On tv, I watch shots of empty streets in other countries. Our Government Advisers warn that when the time comes, we will be ‘locked-down’ for months, not weeks.

As a tutor in Further Education, I’m used to providing a possible solution to loneliness. My colleagues and I offer a massive range of subjects, and draw students from a variety of backgrounds and situations. People sign up firstly, because they want to learn, but the social aspect soon becomes important, too.

As our classes are delivered in hired halls, we tutors meet only rarely. Our students create links between us, drawing references with other classes, often opening new angles of investigation to discussions.

Adult education classes are friendly places. Shared interests draw together people who might never have met in any other way. In the break, over coffee, the conversations extend and new friendships blossom.

Humans are, I believe, a social species, deny it as we sometimes try. This week has been brightened, for me, by the video-clips from Italy of quarantined people sharing music and song, often from their balconies.

This seems to chime with that WHO report about what ‘the arts’ mean to us, and maybe offers a clue to that question of how we cope with isolation. After all, here I am, discussing the situation with you on-line. Maybe this is a moment when technology comes into its own.

Autumn thoughts turn to classes

blackberrying Angus Racy HelpsI’ve never understood why I was taught to think of Autumn as a metaphor for closing down.  Okay, so my early school was rural.  In this season tractors hauling crops regularly passed our gates, and after 3.30pm many of us roamed amongst the workers gathering things in.  We even helped, occasionally, especially if fruit was involved.  Yes, days were getting shorter and winter was approaching.

But, and it’s such a big but I was tempted to set it in capitals, at the same time as harvests were happening, soil was ploughed, harrowed and sowed with crops for the next year.  In the UK, it’s one of the busy times of the agricultural year.

The same rule applies to learning.  Autumn is the beginning of the new academic year.  Remember the noise and excitement of that first day at school, the energy: the excitement?

Working in the FE sector on short courses, I’ve learned that September and October are still the main time when people think about signing up to learn something.  Are we wired to look for classes in autumn, or just following a pattern established in childhood?

Either way, now’s the time when I begin to check in with the office to see how the pre-enrolment numbers are going.  What will be popular?  How busy will the next few months be?

Busy, busy, busy, that’s my view of autumn.  Okay, so the days are shortening, but far from life slowing, in the classroom, the energies and excitements of the summer are being re-focused.  What better way to keep spirits up, as the light levels drop, than to learn or practice something?

It’s easy to feel that once we reach adult-hood we can, or maybe even should, put ‘school’ away.  Not so.  While it may be tricky to fit learning into the busy modern lifestyle, once tried, many stick with it.  They discover that joining a group of focused and enquiring adults can be stimulating, fun and stretching.

Aside from the chance to make new social connections, there are long-term health benefits to returning to classes as an adult.  In a Radio Times article from April 2016, Ellie Walker-Arnott reported that:

A Scottish study has tested over 600,000 factors in a group of 79-year-olds regularly since they were 11. It found that a quarter of brain ageing is down to genes while three quarters (75%) is dependent on our lifestyle choices.

One of the lifestyle choice the studies advocate is on-going education.

Learning something new changes the micro-structure of your brain and sees its size increase in certain areas, rather than shrink.

If you do similar sudoko challenges every day for 10 years it won’t work different parts of your brain, it’s got to be something new. Life drawing is a good option, as each picture is a fresh new challenge. As is learning a new language. Whatever you choose, continuing to learn as we age can have a “dramatically positive effect.”

Autumn thoughts, it seems, should be active.

 

*    Illustration at top of page, ‘Blackberrying’ by Angus Racy Helps.

Where did you find out about that?

As you may know, quite a few of my classes are organised by the WEA.  ‘Who are they?’ people tend to ask, when I tell them who I work for.

‘Workers’ Educational Association,’ I say.

‘Oh,’ they say.  ‘Where’s your college?’

‘There’s no campus,’ I say.  ‘Classes are organised within the community, by volunteers who run the local branch.  There could be some taking place just around the corner from where you live.’

‘Really?’

weaI’ve taught in community centres, out-of-hours schools, village halls, church and chapel halls, library meeting rooms and pub-lounges.  These are all places where people pass through and might see the posters, even if they don’t sign up.

Why am I telling you this?  Well, Saturday I went to the WEA Area Meeting, where delegates from four of the local branches gathered to exchange news and share ideas.  Publicity was one of the items on the agenda, and despite the fact that this year there have been some popular courses put on, there was still a general feeling that the WEA needs a higher public profile.

pitmen_paintersThis is an organisation with a one hundred and thirteen year pedigree: that’s created a healthy alumni and alumnae.  Yet apart from the wonderful, Pitman Painters play by Lee Hall, there’s not much mention of WEA in the national or local press.

Some branches post on social media, and most put up posters and leaflets.  Finding spaces for paper publicity is tricky.  Many of the places with ‘What’s On’ displays are managed by commercial organisations, and often that limits the room left for others.

Our local newspaper used to produce a supplement that contained all of the adult education courses on offer in the county.  That’s how I came to sign up for my first creative writing class.  I remember that I browsed the list, and then took out the page I was tempted by, folded it to the relevant section and kept it on the side for a couple of days as I psyched myself up to phone and enrol.

What I’m wondering is, how can we do that with social media?  The posts on twitter and face-book move rapidly down the page, it’s no wonder that people using it for publicity put out so much duplication.

Is this chatter the best way to attract the attention of a tentative first-timer?

wea-4

 

 

 

Now’s the time to stand up and shout that, ‘Learning Lasts for Life.’

Do you know that the British Chancellor is suggesting that funds for adult education should be cut by 25% and 40%?

I’ve no head for figures, so I’m going to give you what the WEA have to say about it:

Less than 6% of Government spending on education and training is devoted to adult further education and skills. Further cuts, on top of the 24% and 3.9% per cent cuts to the Adult Skills Budget already announced this year, will have a devastating impact on a service that is life-changing for many people.

Putting that in context, over the next 10 years there will be 13.5 million more jobs but only 7 million young people coming into the workforce. At the same time employer investment in skills and training has declined by 2.5 billion since 2011. Apprenticeships alone will not fill the gaps. In addition, the research shows that adult education improves health and wellbeing, develops confidence and builds better communities.

I’m standing up here to say that I have a vested interest in Adult Education.  Not only doWEA Tate_Liverpool I teach adults through the WEA, I became a mature student when I was in my twenties, and I still like to go along to other people’s courses, when they fit in with my timetable, and I hope to continue to do so.  I do it because I like to top-up my skills, and because I’m interested.

What happens when I get there is I meet interesting new people.  They could be any age between 19 and …well, the oldest student on one of my classes, so far, is 94.  On an adult education course people come from all sorts of backgrounds to share their ideas.  I can’t think of any gathering more diverse.  What we have in common is an interest in knowing more about the subject.

What we get is something more than we might have expected.  A sense of community develops.  My horizons are continually broadening.  We get into stimulating discussions, and I go home buzzing with ideas.  A good class is a tonic.

That’s why I’m adding my letter of protest to the others that are going out to our local MPs and the Chancellor, to say, think again.  What Adult Education provides is precious.  It’s not just a second chance, it’s about getting out of the house.  Instead of looking at how much it costs, I would say look at how it improves our sense of self and community.  We want more of this, not less.

Learning-lasts-for-lifeIf you’re interested in finding out more about the WEA campaign to save adult education, you should take a look at their facebook page.