'There is nothing else quite like taking these Workers' Educational Association courses'
Despite being in existence for more than100 years, the Workers' Educational Association is more popular than ever – as Zena Hawley found.
THE group taking a course on The Rise of Byzantium was supposed to take a short break at 2pm – so I could interview them.
Barbara Stirrup anxiously looked at her watch to make sure we didn't slip away before we could meet some of the students.
The course organiser with the Workers' Educational Association – better known as the WEA – said: "They usually stop for tea and coffee before carrying on.
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"But they must be particularly immersed in what they are doing today."
Eventually, the group trickled out of the lecture room – in the new surroundings which the WEA has been calling home since December – excitedly exchanging views on the course.
Courses at the WEA are not intended to deliver an armful of qualifications.
In fact, subjects such as A New Russia 1917-1953; Handel in London or Bess of Hardwick are intended to provide a chance for swapping ideas and sharing opinions – as well as learning.
And having no examinations appealed immensely to Eileen Hartley, 68 – who travels each week to The Mill, in Lodge Lane, Derby, from Nottingham to take the 11-week course. She already has a couple of degrees and is enjoying studying now for its own sake.
Eileen said: "It's terrific attending courses with the WEA, which I have been doing for about 10 years.
"I volunteer with the National Trust at Calke Abbey and am also on the governing body of Bilborough College – but I really enjoy my time studying."
Once a week, fellow learner June Crosby travels from Breaston to take the Byzantine history class.
The rest of the time, she is a member of the Women's Institute and the Long Eaton Natural History Society.
She said: "There is nothing quite like taking these courses. They fill a gap in the adult education market for people who want to continue learning, regardless of age."
The man who had distracted them from their coffee break and kept them enthralled with the history of a fifth-century empire was consultant archaeologist and lecturer Daryl Baxter.
He has lectured at the universities of Nottingham, Leicester and Derby for many years and said: "The enthusiasm of the students who come to these classes is very infectious.
"We have been studying Byzantium for just three weeks and, already, we are having some superb discussions.
"It is a pleasure to teach people who really want to learn and who are prepared to give up their valuable free time to take part in the classes."
Ms Stirrup is quick to point out some courses arise out of demand, while others are suggested by tutors who contact her directly.
She said: "Whichever way they happen, we soon learn what people want and what they don't.
"We have sessional tutors from various areas and, periodically, a committee of student volunteers will sit down and discuss the courses with fellow students and tutors.
"After all, the WEA has never been about being lectured or talked at. We want people to be involved and to bring their own knowledge to classes and share it with everyone else."
For the first time in years, the Derby WEA has a home. After spending some time in the grade one listed St Helen's House, the organisation was forced to move out and took up residence in the Queen's Hall, in London Road.
Ms Stirrup said: "But we had to move from the Queen's Hall because it's closing – and we were lucky enough to get space in The Mill.
"Ironically, we are offering a talk here – followed by a tour – of St Helen's House on March 27, with local historian Maxwell Craven."
The Derby WEA also runs outreach programmes around the city and county. One of the most recent venues to become involved is Da Vinci Community College, in Breadsall Hilltop.
The school became a co-operative trust in 2012 and includes the WEA and other city organisations. Ms Stirrup said: "We are running psychology, tai chi and confidence classes there for the local community.
"We also offer classes to parents who want to help in their child's school and we are working with Derby Homes and the Osmaston Residents' Association.
"It really does seem that, 110 years on, we are going from strength to strength."