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Ailing bodies need a good dose of knowledge

Winning hearts and minds: how to promote health and well-being through participation in adult learning. Kathryn James. NIACE, 2004 ISBN 1-86201-159 1, pound;9.95

If you are a health professional who's just happened to chance on this copy of The TES, stick with it and read on. If you are involved in any way with adult learning, widening participation or health promotion, stick with it too.

There is some good stuff here in Kathryn James's guide to setting up a Prescriptions for Learning project.

Prescriptions for Learning? It is a project to base learning advisers in GPs' surgeries or health centres. They will receive referrals of individuals and help them to take up learning opportunities in their local area.

Winning Hearts and Minds is clear and concise. Its six chapters, oozing with good ideas and the wisdom born of sound practice, tell the story of establishing such a project.

It begins with an overview of the social, educational and health contexts, then traces the course of getting the project off the ground, defining the role of the learning adviser, evaluating the effectiveness of the project, and finally addressing the key issue of sustaining the project long-term amid the vagaries of short-term funding.

Many of the ideas and methods in the book will be familiar to people working to widen participation, but there is much, too, that is fresh and valuable, particularly in the accounts of some of the tensions which emerge in defining the role of the learning adviser, the ideal venue, or the duration of the relationship with learners. There is clearly a real debate going on about the role of the learning adviser. Should learning advisers build longer-term relationships with a smaller group of learners, or should they work with a larger group of people and attempt to "move them on" more quickly?

Much will depend on the skills, experience and qualifications they bring to their work. Some place great importance on building a "therapeutic environment" with clients. Others are clear that their role is not that of a counsellor, but rather a provider of information and advice about local opportunities.

Many learning advisers work in GP surgeries, which can sometimes cause confusion about their role, not least among health professionals working there.

There are variations, too, in the value placed on the project by GPs, from the bunker mentality of, "I only deal in health," to the much more enlightened.

Prescriptions for Learning is visionary because it recognises that health is greater than medicine. Other problems arise from the difficulties of getting information about local learning opportunities, even for experienced advisers, and the frustrations of unreturned messages left on providers' answer phones.

We're left then with a rich, valuable and innovative project which provides a clear and thoughtful model of how professionals from different areas can work together to make a difference. James's text illustrates clearly the power of learning to promote health and well-being, and to tackling the related roots of social deprivation.

As one learner from a project says:"'I used to clean the office, now I work in one."

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