Another account of residential school studies

Isabel Hilton, ‘In Egham, knowledge rules’ Independent, 1 Aug 1992.


‘IT’S NOT like Educating Rita you know,’ said a middle-aged woman, between mouthfuls of spicy chicken spring roll. At first glance, she seemed to have a point. In the cavernous dining hall of Royal Holloway and Bedford College, near Egham in Surrey, some 300 students at the Open University’s week-long summer school were having lunch. Most were in their first year of the Arts Foundation course, others in their third year of an arts degree.

Along the table, a group of elderly ladies were eating cartons of low-fat yoghurt with dessert spoons. Here and there at the long, closely packed tables, a few men, dressed in summer shorts and T- shirts, conspicuous in a sea of women: housewives, teachers, bank clerks, single mothers on income support, a few young career women, some in their sixties and seventies who had left school at 14. ‘For one thing,’ she continued, ‘the accommodation’s nothing like that.’

Outside, the heat was shimmering off the concrete, and tar was gently melting on the top of the lighting shafts that served as seats for those who could stand the temperature. A group of Italian children on a language course thundered past in hot pursuit of a football. The Italians, whose voluble sociability reached its peak in the small hours of the morning, were in hot competition with the dreary, dirty rooms as the main source of complaint.

Lunch over, the students fanned out along the winding paths of the campus to an assortment of classrooms for the afternoon session. After five intensive days, physical energies were flagging, but moral purpose was bravely upheld. ‘It’s the tutors,’ said one student. ‘They have so much knowledge.’

For the 300 people assembled at the college last week, this was the first chance at a complete immersion in subjects they study alone, in time squeezed from family and working lives, in late-night sessions in front of the television set; the first opportunity to be surrounded by others who had embarked on the six-year slog of gaining an Open University degree. Over the summer, nearly 40,000 fellow students will attend summer schools in campuses all over the country. For many, it is an overwhelming experience.

In a flimsy building at the top of the campus, Margaret Johnson, the summer school counsellor, sat in a stark office, fielding a succession of students seeking guidance on academic and personal problems. On the notice boards, the counsellor from the previous week had stuck up two Winnie the Pooh drawings and a picture of the sun coming out from behind a cloud. Ms Johnson had added a bunch of flowers, now losing the struggle against the heat in the corner. ‘It’s not what you would call an ideal room for counselling.’

On her desk was a note, the only item of explanation discovered in the empty room of a student who had left abruptly midweek. ‘It seems to have been a personal problem,’ she said. There had been three casualties of the week: one woman who fled rather than brave the accommodation; one male student, for whom the campus had awakened memories of past trauma and who had spent the week in his room, speaking to nobody, and the writer of the note. About average, she said, for 300 students.

‘It’s the first time some of these people have ever been away from home. If you are a middle-aged women who lived at home until marriage and has never been away, this is the first time you have had to behave as yourself, not as somebody’s wife or somebody’s mother. It can be quite overwhelming.’

There was a lot of homesickness, she said, husbands missing wives, mothers missing children, trying to stave off emotions with late-night conversations on public telephones. During the day, there is what for many is the ordeal of expressing views before a group they fear is cleverer than they are. ‘If they get through it, it can be tremendously liberating. It can make them feel quite powerful. Then they have to come down to earth when they go home.’

Ms Johnson had been through it herself. ‘I remember the rows when I got back from summer school. I started when my son was eight months old. My husband didn’t want me to do it because he had failed in his own academic career. I was determined to do it. We got divorced in the middle of my OU degree.’

There is a faintly defensive quality about the Open University staff on the subject of the summer schools, an unspoken sensitivity to the reputation that they are an open season for sex – an implausible charge at Egham, where the nine-hour study day gave way to a well-attended series of group social events: ice-breaker on Sunday, quiz on Monday, barn dance on Tuesday, concert on Thursday. Or that the Open University breaks up marriages by taking housewives from the kitchen sink and giving them ideas. How do you keep them chained to the sink once they’ve tasted the theory of the dominant ideology? If education breeds dissatisfaction, what does the pure stuff of a week of summer school do?

‘Look,’ said Ms Johnson, ‘it depends on the motivation. Some people do this because they want to change their jobs. That’s fine, and perfectly straightforward. Other people go into it because they are dissatisfied with their lives and want to do something about it. It doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily going to unbalance them.’

Though sometimes, of course, it does. Or, at least, it can be the catalyst that unbalances lives whose equilibrium was already beginning to wobble. ‘It’s like if somebody in a marriage goes off with somebody else: it’s never as simple as just meeting another person,’ said Ms Johnson. ‘They wouldn’t do it if they weren’t ready to go.’ But for the minority for whom that process is in train, summer school can become strong emotional stuff. Men can suddenly be seized with fear that they they will outgrow their wives or their workmates; women with a sense of rage at the years they feel they wasted in the mundane.

In the purple and green interior of the Athlone Building assembly hall, the chairs had been set out for Thursday evening’s Arts Event, a concert put together by students and staff, heavy with Arts Foundation in-jokes and gentle satire on the dominant ideology. One of the philosophy tutors led the audience in Marlene Dietrich’s song about the question of determinism, Falling in Love Again. The assembled tutors unveiled their final gag: a tableau taken from Ford Madox Brown’s painting, Work. It brought the house down. Afterwards, some students drifted down to drink beer outside the Stumble Inn, the campus pub, waiting for the disco to begin. The next day would bring final classes and then home. ‘I didn’t want to come,’ said Andrew Rose, a 22-year-old motor insurance claims negotiator. ‘And when I got here I didn’t like it. Now I don’t want to go home. I’m really into the art now. I think I might follow it up.’

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