Away from the pits and back to learning

Harvey McGavin reports on the winner of the Beacon Award for Widening Participation at the Association of Colleges conference in Harrogate

When the colliery closed in Grimethorpe in 1993 it marked the end of a way of life in the South Yorkshire pit village.

But the colliery band played on - providing the story behind the critically acclaimed film Brassed Off starring Ewan MacGregor. And now a community education scheme begun five years ago for ex-miners in the village has won a national award for Barnsley College sparking rumours of a sequel - Chuffed to Bits starring jubilant members of staff.

Community Outreach - winner of The TES and AoC sponsored Beacon Award for Widening Participation - started as a small-scale pilot project in response to the closures of Grimethorpe and nearby Great Houghton collieries. But the project soon expanded to anyone looking for a "non-threatening, informal opportunity to return to learning".

It now has more than 2,000 learners on its books at nearly 50 centres, where they can choose from six study areas, ranging from basic skills and pre-vocational training through to GCSEs and higher education access courses.

Programme leader Roy Ledger was one of the scheme's first tutors, and remembers teaching ex-miners in a front room in Grimethorpe.

Since then he has seen the scheme blossom and he says the secret of its success has been in the college's willingness to be responsive and flexible - "to go where the learners are".

"It is part of the college's commitment to be involved in the social regeneration of the area," he said. "I think we have done remarkably well - we have grown almost exponentially into what we have today and something like 40 per cent of the people remain with us or move into college-based programmes. "

Students who have developed a taste for learning have gone on to courses at the college itself where a humanities and social science based access course is proving popular. Meanwhile, there is a steady stream of newcomers tempted by the Have-a-Go introductory course.

The project prides itself on being an invitation rather than an obligation to learn. Accreditation is offered thorough the Open College Network but it is not compulsory and is designed to add to the enjoyment of the course rather than put people off.

This friendly philosophy, says Roy Ledger, has been instrumental in attracting new learners, many of whom hear about the course through word of mouth. "We do advertise in the local press and so on but the best ambassadors we can have are people who have enjoyed what they have done with us."

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