Can older learners still cut it in the classroom?

I am about to leave home to go to  Ruskin College, Oxford on a Ransackers Course. This is a project open to people over the age of 50 who have not previously benefited from higher education. Best of all it is free for eligible students and includes tuition, accommodation, free meals and most wonderfully, a pass to the Bodlian Library.  Ransackers is aimed at those from a generation that has had

limited opportunities for education and who have burning questions or a project they are deeply committed to. I applied for the course  and went along to meet the tutor and to present my project and discuss if I would be able to commit to the learning process. They seemed to think that I was eminently suitable, but will my brain still work? I know that I am capable; I have run a business for oever 20 years, but reading for me has been more entertainment than for learning.

When I left home in Wales  I had a clutch of O Levels and a lot of enthusiasm for life. My first job was in London employed by the BBC as a secretary in The Urdu Service at Bush House in London. Whilst I learnt a lot about people in that building and their very different cultures , I was a terrible secretary. My typing was so bad that for important letters, my boss, a journalist called Towyn Mason, would type them himself very quickly and accurately with two fingers.

After working in different areas of the BBC, I finally found my niche in food by winning Cosmopolitan Cook of the Year Competition. The first prize was a year at Leith’s School of Food and Wine, sponsored by The Butter Council. In fact I won a whole new career via this prize and my first job was as the chef of Justin de Blank’s country house hotel in Norfolk. From then on I ran various kitchens and set up my own outside catering business, specialising in large events.

Now after 27 years of marriage and combining bringing up our two boys with running a catering business I am finally leaving home to study. After a life as a food writer and caterer I am going to use this time  away from home to explore  the way we eat now and the lost cooking skills of at least one generation. More specifically I am going to examine the benefits of cooking from scratch and how to understand the lack of knowledge and concern the youth of Britain have towards the food they eat. I am interested in hearing how people manage to cook, eat and share food with their families, whilst juggling different timetables, jobs and social commitments.  The skills I have learned being a caterer is to be highly organised, how to manage people and organise my time. The problem being that I have always worked towards paid projects and this will require a different discipline. I am very much looking forward being shown how to develop research skills and digging out relevant bits of information. It will also be lovely not having to worry about shopping, cleaning and immersing myself in learning for a while. On the other hand it will be strange waking up alone and I will really miss walking the dog every morning.  I would be interested in hearing from anyone who has any ideas or thoughts on the way we eat in the UK today, particularly the education of the young about food and where it comes from.

Apparently, previous Ransackers have gone on to study for degree courses in all manner of subjects and have benefited from learning in later life. Many people retire early and find gardening, golf and walking the dog not quite enough and have embarked on this path to fullfil their academic potential with great success. So, if you are thinking about taking on a new challenge, this might be for you.

Comments

  1. Hi Heather

    This sounds really good – and it’s great to hear that you’re still eager to ‘go back to school’, to learn about something that you have studied throughout your career.

    How long is the course for? Tell us more about your project! :-)

    Regarding some of your points:

    > lost cooking skills of at least one generation
    > benefits of cooking from scratch and how to understand the lack of knowledge and concern the youth of Britain have towards the food they eat

    I think these things go hand in hand. Most youth (and adults) don’t cook – and have never cooked, anything from scratch. This means that people don’t realise how much sugar and butter go into cookies. They hear about calories, but it doesn’t mean much because it’s just a number. If people made cookies, cakes, etc. they would see the amount of ‘bad stuff’ that goes into food and would (I ‘think’) cut down how much they consume.

    Also off the top of my head are these things:

    On one of the programs that Jamie Oliver did in America, it showed that children in most American schools aren’t allowed to eat with knives because knives are deemed as being too dangerous. I find this ludicrous.

    After reading the 4 Hour Body and a few science focused TV programs, it’s apparent that most things we consume on a daily basis are really bad for us – breakfast cereals, yoghurt, bread, sauces. Plus in America meat from animals that have been corn fed, instead of grass fed. The science and even more so the marketing, behind all this is astonishing. Pretty much the only way to guarantee that you’re eating ‘proper food’ is to cook from scratch, or to be a very selective shopper. It shouldn’t be like this…

    I’ve been on food focused holidays in Italy and Lebanon and seen first-hand that people in those countries generally know a lot more about food than we do in the UK. I feel that in the UK, if someone knows a little about food and ingredients, they are labelled a ‘foodie’ whereas in many other countries, this level of knowledge is commonplace.

    The main difference between Lebanese food and British food is that Lebanese food is very natural. In terms that they combine ingredients for flavour – they don’t resort to adding lots of sauces, or embedding food in pastry, breadcrumbs or batter like we do. Their Arabic ‘flatbread’ (which they have at every meal) is possibly the most ‘processed’ food they eat on a regular basis. Oh I almost forgot desserts they have which are often pastries, soaked in syrup – but even then, these are obviously unhealthy and are treated as a treat, unlike much of what we have in the UK.

    If you walk around a city like Nice, France, compared to most/all cities in the UK, you will see a huge difference with the body shape of the people in each location. People in Nice are generally far more healthy and slim, even though some of their eating habits (such as going out to dinner at 10pm – which we would consider to be far too late to eat) are considered to be bad.

    Have fun on the course!

  2. Oh and another thing. Many children – and adults in the UK have very poor table manners. For example, they don’t know how to hold a knife and fork! Elbows off the table, use a napkin, push the spoon away from you when you eat soup, use the small plate on your left for your bread, etc.

    • I had some friends who worked in inner London secondary schools and when one of them had to take them for a celebratory lunch for some good work they had done they were so embarrassed that they didn’t know how to eat at a table properly. It is a big problem and those who sit in government in their privileged bubbles have no idea of the depth of the problem. Something I will be looking at.

  3. Pauline Scott says:

    Hi Heather, just want to wish you luck (you won’t need it!) with your course and I really hope you enjoy it. It was lovely meeting up with you and seeing all the ‘kids’ together again, all so grown up!!
    Looking forward to seeing you and George after your course finishes for some leisurely country walks and wholesome cooking down here in the South.
    lots of love,
    Pauline x

  4. Hello Heather – congratulations that sounds like a wonderful and well-deserved plan!

    As to your question I think it is a phenomena not just in the UK. These are my observations in Germany where I have lived for many years but I have also seen this in France and other parts of Europe.

    I believe that being of a generation where most domestic roles were traditionally divided when we were young, we were glad to have partners who were actually willing to help with chores, cooking, child care etc. and felt the shift in these roles during the 80’s and 90’s and it was a blessing for those who had it and we were proud of having chosen well.

    Now I watch as my friends which children neither teach them any domestic skills nor believe they should “have” to do them. Cleaning is done by the cleaning lady or Mom – even the kid’s room. The excuse being “oh well he/she doesn’t feel like doing it” and in the same often applies to cooking – Moms/Dads “don’t feel like cooking”. The main excuse being time.

    Our emotional well-being seems to have superseeded our physical well-being when it comes to food: “Do I want to make the effort? Do I feel like cooking?”
    Add to this a media that transports tthe visuals and “beliefs” that convenience food tastes and “emotionally” feels like home cooked – with happy healthy faces laughing and joking around the table – and you have a perfect fit. The ultimate excuse! Time-saving, yummy, healthy like they say on the telly!

    If you like good / healthy food you will make an effort to cook and teach your children the basics so they at least know where food comes food other than the supermarket freezer, if you have no real interest in food, you won’t.

    I often have this discussion with my freinds with children about whether they realize that for the so-called “good” of their sons they are raising little pashas that resemble their own fathers. So much for years and years of female liberation.

    I have taught my 16 years to cook, clean, do laundry and iron. I tell him that in that way he will always be self-sufficient and proud that he can be a good role model for others. He nows does it without complaining and on a regular schedule. Children near clear structures as do many adults. If we teach our children that we do chores, eat cooked foods at sit-down meals and that they should set the table, wipe it and fill and unfill the dishwasher regularly they will learn that these are parts of daily routine – and wow they might even have a few meaningful conversations in the bargain.

    “Luckier” in a sense are family with allergies and food intolerances which often becomes a home cooked / healthy motivator “forcing” people to look into how and what to eat and therefore cook.

    And of course one problem which has been discussed on quite a few blogs and forums lately is the topic of what fresh food costs. Unfortunately convenience food which used to be expensive is now so cheap as compared to fresh ingredients that some people who have to tightly budget – as so many do these days – will reach more often to convenience food than in the past. This once again is what children learn: convenience food is cheap, fast and often instantly gratifying because it taste “just as it should” – the perfect example is McDonalds tasting more or less the same since 1954 they now have “33,000 restaurants serving nearly 68 million people in more than 119 countries every day.” And you know when you go in the front door exactly what it will taste like – that is often hard to beat!

    Sorry this is so long but it is a fascinating subject!

    Good luck and if you need more let me know!

    Best
    Karin

    • Hi Karin, Thanks for your comment – as you say it is a big subject and I hope it won’t be too overwhelming. I am interested in what you say about Germany and France, as I assumed that they had more respect for their food produce than here in the UK. A German friend told me that she had never seen people eat in front of the TV until she moved here. A lot of the problems we face in the UK is the fact that we so readily adopted American influences.”TV dinners” not to mention the dreaded McDonalds. Worryingly Britain eats more than half the crisps and snacks eaten in the whole of Europe. Keep in touch and I will post any interesting findings.
      All the best – Heather

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