By "educated" I don't mean that I've been to Oxford and collected a BA and to Nottingham and collected an MA (well, strictly speaking never went to Nottingham except for dinner with friends, the degree thing was entirely from afar) but rather that Her Majesty's government is now once more paying for my education. As anyone who reads the newspapers or experiences the system will know, we live in a world of farmed-out services. The Jobcentre sells me to Maximus; Maximus sells me to LearnDirect. All three outfits bill you, and me, the taxpayers, for this enterprise. I think I'd like to know what I'm costing, but I have a feeling the figures will prove hard to squeeze out.
At this point I want to sing a little praise. Daisy at Maximus (no longer, alas, because she has another, better, job, probably in a rather busier place) suggested LearnDirect because I said I didn't feel able to say I could handle "Powerpoint" and "Excel" which job advertisers were asking for. It is probably supreme arrogance to say that I have no doubt I could have learnt them within a few days on the job, but without them in advance I couldn't get so far as an interview, and I baulk at telling fibs in job applications. Daisy's instinct was right, this is a very good thing to do - not because I will now get a job, I still think that highly unlikely, but because it has given me a degree of confidence in applying, and, much more importantly, skills which I can use at home in my own studies and researches, which I have forgotten or would not otherwise have had. For me, this constitutes a gift from Her Majesty's government, and I am grateful.
LearnDirect has an office directly above the Oxford branch of Lidl. The desk I've been allocated is right above the fresh vegetables. Maybe this is significant. I'd hoped to buy cheaper catfood after my studies, but although it is cheaper (by 40p) than Waitrose, it's sort of freakish - whoever heard of a cat hunting "lamb and mint"? So I settled for instant coffee and an Ardennes paté instead. You reach the teaching rooms by going round the back, buzzing into a staircase, and then walking across a roof. It is a Health and Safety officer's nightmare. There is one fire exit - just one exit of any kind - and that is across the burning roof. I found this funny. You could probably jump from the window and survive. Apparently they used to have offices in the Westgate Centre in the middle of Oxford, but that is being re-developed, and one cannot help thinking that this shabby little shanty is a heck of a lot cheaper.
I arrived to be assessed and enrol. Apparently I am literate (Oxford, and Nottingham, breathe out now, it's OK) and moderately numerate, so I qualify for Level 2. I've no real idea what this means. In the saltmine, one just obeys orders, whatever the level is. So it was set that I would begin work the next day, and so I did. That was a Tuesday. Wednesday and Thursday were occupied by hospitals and Maximus, and more happily by my psychiatrist and backgammon, so it was on Friday that I did my first test - on Word 2010 - and got 97%. Now I know this is a small thing - the pass mark is 75%, and when I was studying and teaching, in history or politics, that would have been a very strong A-grade at A-level - but it was a confidence booster, made me realise that the short-term memory is not yet shot, and the brain is not yet dead. So I tally'd-ho, and on Tuesday did the exam for Power Point - 91%. This pleased me rather more, as I've been using word-processing for quarter of a century (did that pesky MA on a computer, and taught myself footnotes an' all) but Power Point I'd only ever seen, never used myself, and when I'd seen it, it was generally done badly. So, this constituted real learning, against the odds.
By Wednesday, I thought I was on a roll, and was determined to finish the Excel spreadsheet course, but alas, I only got 81% on the practice test. Each time previously I'd done better in the real thing - by 10% and 2% respectively - so I could have carried on, but I dithered because one of my scores was a very low 50%. It meant I didn't really understand what I was doing. So, I resolved (after taking Thursday out to sign on and visit my new minder, Chris, at Maximus) to do the practice test again on Friday morning and then, assuming it was better after some swotting, to do the test, and then move on to the fourth module.
But things happen to thwart you, don't they? On Wednesday night I spent an hour on the telephone trying to talk to Scottish Power about a key card for the new prepayment meter they installed after breaking and entering our flat without warning or notice two weeks before. It was supposed to arrive in the post, but it hadn't. Turned out, I could collect one on the Thursday from a BP garage on the Cowley Road - another two miles walk out of town, after the Labour Exchange and Maximus. This was rather on my mind. So, I didn't swot up on Maximus's computer for the test the next morning, nor use the little memory stick that nice Trevor the Teacher had given me with exercises for swotting. I just wanted to be sure of getting that card. A warm shower depends on it, and I didn't go to the kind of school that makes that a matter of indifference.
So, less prepared than I'd wished, I set off for the fire-trap above Lidl on Friday morning, determined to sort the Excel test by lunchtime, go to Tesco's and buy cheap dry catfood and hayfever stuff for His Lordship, and then return to make a small incursion on module 4, which is called, rather majestically, "Productivity". But no Trevor. And if no Trevor, no test. The practice test could be made available, but only if I did all the "quizes" again, and I'd done them twice (at least) already, and couldn't be doing with that, and in any case if I have a plan I have to follow it through, or ditch it for a new one. Cat food came to the fore. So I got that. After nunning on Monday morning, I shall be back to the LearnDirect saltmine, I hope to resume my plan with just one wasted day.
There are a number of things about this story which lurk with me. One is that this sort of training, for all that it is no substitute for the "experience" almost all employers demand, nonetheless is a good thing to do and to have, and it baffles me that it has not been offered before in the eight years I've been off work. Most of that time I was "signed off", which means I didn't have to look for work, and they didn't have to give a monkey's about me; but I was looking, and they could have cared. My biggest handicap (apart from employers assuming I must be a child molester if even the Church of England won't employ me anymore) is now the length of time I've been out of work. I asked, more than once, for help from the Jobcentre people. I got three sessions with a woman who said "you need to make your CV less interesting".
The next is that LearnDirect - unlike the Jobcentre, and Maximus - has a sense of busyness about it. One teacher can have a dozen students in the room, all of whom from time to time need his personal attention. Sometimes it's a long wait, and that's a lot of pressure on one teacher - a teacher, I should add, who is possessed of infinite patience, a simple and effective teaching style, and a generous good humour. He's a great asset. But he is over-stretched. And his being over-stretched meant my own timetable for completing this course is set back - there should have been someone else who could Open Sesame and make what I needed happen when he was poorly on Friday morning.
And we are all willing to learn. Most of us are in mid-life, left behind by the high tide of former middling success, or never made it even that far anyway. Some, like me, are going because we were told we could. Some have deadlines because they've been told they must. I don't hold with treating everyone the same, because that's not how education works, and coercion is almost always set to fail. We are told there's a buoyant jobs market in Oxford, but we know when we see the grey hair in the mirror and the wrong decade in the "d.o.b." column that it's not buoyant for us. If it were, we'd not be fannying about with this nonsense that any normal person learns when they have work, and by necessity. But there is consolation in having the piece of paper at the end, the thing that says "yes, I can work this-and-that programme - so employ me!". The Department of Work and Pensions is not interested in morale, but it should be, because that is the biggest problem the long-term unemployed have, and it is made worse because it is an entirely rational deduction from past failure that there will not be future success. When we were children, we were told that if we didn't learn from experience, we were idiots. Now, outfits like A4e (another DWP training gimp) say it's pessimism and bad attitude.
The conclusion is that the old dog can learn new tricks - and rather enjoy doing so. The next question is whether anyone wants to hire the dog.