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Study among the spires

Kerry Potter brushed up on her holiday French with a course at Oxford's Continued Education arm. If you want to upskill, or learn something new, book for Sept

If you’re anything like the Muddy team, life is a relentless whirlwind of work, family commitments, admin and household chores. And while something fun and frivolous like a night out can often hit the spot (er, nearly always), sometimes it’s good to go for something a bit more nourishing to the soul.

So when CONTED, Oxford University’s continuing education department, asked Muddy staffers to try out some of its courses, our interest was piqued. Turns out they have an insanely wide range of subjects so there’s truly something for everyone – from languages to art history to creative writing to sciences to one called Improve Your Blog (no jokes, thanks).

Sounds too time consuming? Mais non! Turns out there are a variety of course lengths – you can commit to a day, a weekend, a weekly evening class or more, plus some are available online so you can study from the comfort of your sofa. So is it possible to successfully go back to school as a grown-up? Muddy’s associate editor Kerry Potter grabbed her pencil case and headed off to brush up on her rusty French. Ça va bien, Kerry?


Intensive French Weekend.


Saturday 9.15am – 4pm, then Sunday 9.15pm – 1.3opm.


To boost my shaky written, spoken and reading skills. I used to be virtually fluent – my degree included a French literature paper and I spent a year after graduation working in Provence and the Ardèche. But that was all two long decades ago. The only times je parle français these days is during my summer holidays, which means I don’t get beyond deciphering menus or basic chats with the owners of Airbnbs or villas.



The teaching takes place in a series of lecture rooms in a modern building in Summertown, with sessions covering an impressively modern, interesting range of topics. We watched trailers of films nominated in this years Césars (the French Oscars) and wrote reviews, discussed feminism and how social change impacts on the language we use and  debated the merits of French and British gastronomy, while creating recipes. All the teachers were French, every word uttered in the classroom was in French and we delved into the more head-scratching end of French grammar at times but if you didn’t understand something, you simply had to ask and they would carefully explain and write it out on the whiteboard. The teaching was brilliant – the sessions were well-structured, engaging and informative and the staff were friendly and inclusive.

These intensive language weekends have a variety of courses to suit all levels, running concurrently, so if you or your teacher feel you’re booked onto one that’s too easy/hard, they’ll swiftly move you up or down. Being stupidly proud I spent the first morning terrified that I’d be demoted (I wasn’t) but lots of other students I spoke to had happily moved to the level above or below.

Our class was apparently at maximum capacity with 14 in attendance, while some other groups consisted of just 4 or 5 students. The vast majority were pensioners, keen to build on their weekly French evening classes. As I was raised to always respect my elders, I think it’s best to describe them as, ahem, extremely enthusiastic about showcasing their speaking skills. There was also an alarming amount of flirting going on – by 9.20am on Saturday one woman had shared with the class that the octogenarian sitting next to her was ‘l’homme de mes rêves’ (the man of my dreams) which led me to ponder if evening classes are the Baby Boomers’ version of Tinder perhaps? Ooh la la.

There was also a smattering of twentysomething women in attendance; one wanted to be able to communicate better with her French friends, another worked for a domestic abuse charity that helped a lot of French-speaking women. The teachers were mindful of letting everyone get a word in – a tricky task in my group – and would make a point of picking out myself or the two younger women to speak at times.



£110, which is excellent value – you could easily spend that much on a night out or a pair of shoes. And they also threw in lunch on the Saturday – a baguette, naturellement, plus endless tea, coffee and biscuits.



I was pleased I’d thought to take along my trusty mini French dictionary – I used it loads over the weekend to nudge my memory and expand my vocabulary. You’ll also need a notebook or laptop on which to take notes. And once back home I was careful to spend an hour on Sunday night reading back over my notes to commit that new vocab and grammar rules to memory.

A note of caution – it’s all very well doing something like this when your pace of life is leisurely but as someone with a  full-time job, young children and a house to run, I found it pretty tiring. When you have to be in class by 9am on Saturday and Sunday (concentrating harder than you’ve done for decades), it means you essentially have no weekend for a full fortnight stretch, as you plunge without pause straight back into the frenetic Monday morning routine. As I mentioned, everyone else on my course was either much younger or much older than me and I guess that’s why. That said, I absolutely loved that sense of soaking up new knowledge, was delighted by how much I thought I’d forgotten came flooding back and felt deliciously smug about spending my weekend doing something constructive. I’d definitely do it again.



That pensioners are a formidable bunch! But then I already knew that (have you met my mum?). On a serious note, I realized it is actually possible to ring-fence some time to pursue something cerebral – it’s not logistically easy but it is doable. I didn’t put it all to one side the minute I got home either. Inspired, I’ve added a bunch of French flicks to my Netflix list, bookmarked French news channel TV5’s website so I can watch their nightly news show and downloaded the Larousse dictionary app to my phone. I’m determined to keep at it.

Interest piqued? Here are some other upcoming CONTED courses to whet your whistle, all starting back in September but booking now.

  1.  Psychology: An Introduction, starts 10 Sep
  2. Social Entrepreneurship, starts 12 Sep

For a full list see here 

Find more ideas here


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