City Lit finally gets a pound;21m home fit for its heroics

5th September 2003, 1:00am
Simon Midgley


City Lit finally gets a pound;21m home fit for its heroics
It is not every educational institution that can boast of once having Charles Clarke on its staff. The Education Secretary spent several years teaching maths on the City Literary Institute's access to higher education programme.

The City Lit, as it is affectionately known, is the country's largest adult education college. It has been offering non-vocational, part-time education to Londoners in the heart of Covent Garden for more than 80 years.

Opened in September 1919, it was one of five literary institutes set up by the then London County Council as part of its post-war reconstruction strategy. The idea was to offer office workers opportunities to study arts and humanities in the evening. Although the others no longer exist, the City Lit flourished. Housed in a teacher training college at first, it moved to its present, purpose-built building in Stukeley Street in 1939.

During the Second World War classes took place in air-raid shelters on the platforms of Covent Garden and Holborn tube stations.

Today the City Lit has a turnover of pound;11.2m; 1,040 staff, of whom 160 are full-time; 24,000 students, 64 per cent of whom are female; and 48,000 enrolments. Its size means it operates from seven sites but all that is about to change - by 2004 it should have moved to a brand-new building in nearby Keeley Street.

The pound;21m building will be the largest purpose-built adult education college in Britain, if not Europe. It will have a performance space, learning centre, a cafe and around 70 teaching spaces.

The City Lit's historic strengths include music, drama and the visual arts.

computing, basic skills, herbal medicine and languages from Catalan to Cornish. Very few courses impose entry qualifications.

A large programme in Camden teaches adults alongside their children in primary schools. Another scheme works with homeless charities and rough sleepers across London. The college's centre for deaf people serves the entire capital, while people from all over the country attend a course for stammerers.

A City Lit Repertory Company gives students and professional actors a chance to showcase their talents. There are hundreds of drama classes to choose from. Favourites include Great Stage Fights or Even Greater Stage Fights. Learners seeking something a little less rumbustious might opt instead for Magic for Beginners or Winter Herbs for Health.

Teachers have included Fenella Fielding and Clifford Williams, the RSC director, and former drama students include Richard Wilson and Stephen Berkoff.

An e-library in the warren-like Stukeley Street headquarters offers learning support, access to the Web and opportunities for one-to-one study skills training.

The Stukeley Street main site is in use 12 hours a day, six days a week.

The college is unusual in that rooms are used for two evening sessions a day, one starting at 5.30 or 6pm, the other at 7.30 or 8pm.

Unlike most adult education colleges, the City Lit has a policy of not cancelling courses. Others cancel up to 25 per cent of the courses because of insufficient uptake, but the City Lit, by careful planning, cancels less than 3 per cent. If it does cancel, it refunds the fees and gives students pound;5 in compensation.

Margaret Davey, the principal, who came to further and higher education late via Spanish classes while bringing up three children, said: " We can help people follow their dream in a way that is not threatening and does not smell of school.

"A lot of adult learners have had unhappy learning experiences at school and have ended up going in the wrong direction because of that. Or they've taken a job rather than continuing education or maybe started a family."

Pointing to the hugh proportion of female stidents, Mrs Davey said adult education colleges gave women space for themselves. She has never forgotten what it was like to be a part-time student juggling studying and family duties.

"When I came to the City Lit six years ago, it was a college resting on its laurels. It's been quite a difficult journey getting it to respond to the local communities' needs. It had to change styles of courses and attract a wider group of people."

Today the college has achieved an Investors in People award and the Charter Mark, awarded for excellent service to the public. "The Charter Mark is very demanding," Mrs Davey said. "You have got to show that you are listening to customers and you must address the question of how the organisation presents itself to those people not yet here."

Certainly the new building will do a lot to attract the future custom necessary to ensure the college's survival.

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