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Back from the pit of despair

Emma Burstall reports on a head's ambitious project to re-skill parents in a former mining community

For almost two years, headteacher Karen Mackay spent hours of her spare time knocking on doors and giving presentations to raise money for a project which, she believes, will help to transform her school and the local community.

Her ambition is to build a community skills and training room at Sutton Road First School, Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, with the aim of helping to break the cycle of disadvantage there. In central Mansfield, where the school is situated, adult unemployment runs at 18.75 per cent compared with the county average of 10.44 per cent, and the whole town is still reeling from the after-effects of mine closures. The multi-purpose centre will offer vocational courses for adults, space for local firms, and community resource and childcare facilities, including a breakfast and after-school club for working parents. Those doing National Vocational Qualifications in childcare will be able to use children being cared for in these clubs as a learning resource.

As well as helping parents back into employment, the centre will give young children the opportunity to gain work experience eventually, through links with businesses using the room.

Thanks to the determination of Ms Mackay and two energetic school governors - Teresa Jackson and Dilwyn Evans - chosen by the governing body to represent them on a special working party, the project which once seemed like a fantasy is now well on the way to becoming reality. The school - which has 260 pupils, plus 40 full-time equivalent nursery children - already has raised Pounds 30,000 and has applied for match-funding money from the European Union for regenerating former coal and steel areas. The centre should be operating by the summer term.

"It's been incredibly hard work and we've only been able to do it because we're devoted to the idea of active learning from cradle to grave. You have to be passionate and committed to be able to throw yourself into something like this," Ms Mackay says. The centre will be extremely unusual in that most such projects are in secondary schools. Ms Mackay, however, believes it is vital to start early. "You've got to get kids interested in business links now, not when they're 15 or 16 and totally switched off. Some of our parents have never worked, some are illiterate. How can you expect kids to be motivated if their parents hardly know what a job is? I firmly believe there's a knock-on effect, and if you work with parents they become more involved in their children's education," she said.

The working party claims one of the major attractions of the centre for parents is that they will not have to travel far. The nearest further education college is three miles and two bus journeys away.

A five-day survey carried out by the school and West Nottinghamshire College, which will provide all vocational courses, showed there was a strong demand for book-keeping, accountancy, and business start-ups, as well as basic literacy and numeracy skills. "Many of our parents stopped learning at 15 or 16, and say they wish they'd had a better education. I went round the playground asking if they'd be interested in returning to learn, and most said they wouldn't because of the children. But when I suggested they could do courses here which would coincide with the school day, they were enthusiastic," Ms Mackay said.

She has been surprised and delighted by the willingness of local firms and funding agencies to provide funds for the new, Pounds 60,000-Pounds 70, 000, single-storey room, which will be built between two existing wings of the main school building. North Nottinghamshire Training and Enterprise Council (TEC) has pledged Pounds 22,500 for the project, which dovetails with its Partnership Room programme, launched in July 1992. This is a long-term strategy to sponsor rooms in schools and colleges to strengthen links with the local community, and promote a wide range of career opportunities. Other national and local firms have also offered support, including Mansfield Brewery and Etam, the clothing store, which has provided computer equipment. The school's parents' group has raised Pounds 2,000. Should Euro-money not be forthcoming, Ms Mackay is optimistic about finding funds elsewhere.

"We're determined to see this happen, and once the centre is open, we'll apply for a development worker grant so I'm not totally bogged down in administration," she said. Ms Mackay, 36, has been committed to community education since her early teaching days in Hackney, east London. As a head in Derbyshire in the late 1980s, she helped to set up a senior citizens' lunch club, a school co-operative shop, a youth club, and a family book project. "You shouldn't see children in isolation, you should look at the parents and the community as well. I see our community and skills room as a blueprint for the future and hope other primary and first schools will follow suit," she added.

Pat Richards, chief executive of North Nottinghamshire TEC, says such projects will help to reverse chronic unemployment. "In 1992, seven pits were closed in North Nottinghamshire overnight and there were 8,100 mining redundancies. It's terribly important to raise the aspirations of our young people and open up opportunities for ex-miners, for example, to study for a second career, " she said.

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