It's All in a Good Course - LONDON LEARNING 2004; with More Than 3,000 Courses Available at One London Adult Education College Alone, Now Is the Time to Take the Challenge

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Byline: SARAH RICHARDSON

SINCE she was widowed, Shirley Davies, of Maida Vale, has completed classes at the City of Westminster College and Morley College in Waterloo in subjects including reflexology, creative writing and Indian head massage. Her first foray into lifelong learning was to take her European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL) two years ago. "It was fantastic," she says. "You get lots of extra 'driving lessons'."

But, at 71, it is her growing portfolio of IT skills that demonstrates how age is no barrier to embracing new ideas and practices. "It's very important to get involved in the world as it is today," she says.

"The Westminster staff are absolutely charming, very supportive and never think you're not up to much. So far I've learned to handle databases and Excel and I'm about to start desktop publishing."

Mrs Davies is part of a growing trend. According to the latest statistics from the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) there were 1,042,000 adult enrolments on courses offered by Local Education Authorities (LEAs) in England in November 2002. Of these students, 25 per cent were aged 60 or more and 73 per cent were women.

But it is not only the retired who are embracing the opportunity to learn.

In Greater London, nearly four per cent of 19- to 59-year-olds are enrolled on an adult education course and, as of November 2002, there were 221,000 enrolments on daytime, evening and distance learning courses.

Margaret Davey is principal of The City Lit, London's largest part-time adult education college, which offers more than 3,000 courses a year, including magic for beginners, stand-up comedy, photography, languages and complementary therapies.

"Every year, more than 23,000 Londoners take a part-time course with us and a recent survey of our students found that 44 per cent joined a course to meet other people or simply

to enjoy themselves," she says.

"It's really motivating when people can choose a subject that interests them and find they are learning with other enthusiasts, including the teacher. Most City Lit courses are relatively short so students aren't put off by a long-term commitment."

So why are courses so popular?

Jenny Ungless, whose company, City Life Coaching, offers life and career coaching to young professionals, suspects there are two main driving forces.

"Some people use courses as a means of updating their skills to improve their work prospects or lead to a change of career," she says.

"Others are looking for escapism, leisure or to improving their work-life balance."

She points to recent research by JP Morgan Fleming which showed that 73 per cent of people in London are dissatisfied with their jobs (compared with 52 per cent in the UK as a whole) and that 64 per cent of Londoners are concerned about their work-life balance (compared with 49 per cent nationally).

"Don't use enrolling on a course as an excuse to dodge more deep-seated career worries," warns Ungless. "If you just want to make more of your leisure time and that's the purpose of the course, then that's great. But if you're in the wrong job, simply going on a course won't fix that. You're spending your time and money, so make sure it's a good investment by being clear from the outset what you want to achieve."

Ungless says this is the key to selecting the right course. If you are looking at a course as a way of updating skills, refocusing your CV or as a taster for a new career, you'll get much more out of it if you can put it in a strategic context.

"For example, I have a client who plans to leave her marketing consultancy job to set up her own makeup and image-consultancy business," she says.

"Because she's already started writing her business plan she has a good idea of what she's setting out to achieve and has been able to select the training course that best meets her requirements. …