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Beeb's glamour pulls in learners

In Gloucester, the BBC brand is opening up colleges to people who might not normally attend, reports Martin Whittaker

The learning centre in Gloucester city centre looks like any other. There are sofas, desks bristling with new technology and eager staff ready to usher you in.

But the biggest difference here is the three letters above the door: BBC.

This is the latest in a series of learning centres opened by the broadcasting corporation in partnership with the further education sector.

The centre is in a deprived, multi-cultural part of the city where potential learners are among the most difficult to reach. Yet, corporation executives are confident that the coveted BBC brand will lure them in.

"People will come in because they feel they have ownership of it," said Andy Griffee, controller of BBC English regions. "They feel they almost have a right to it because they pay the licence fee. And let's face it - broadcasting is a sexy and glamorous industry, and that in turn appeals to youngsters."

The new centre is run in partnership with Gloucestershire College of Arts and Technology (Gloscat) with pound;1.6 million from Gloucestershire Learning and Skills Council and pound;800,000 from the European Social Fund.

The BBC has opened similar centres in Blackburn, Sheffield, Liverpool and Stoke-on-Trent, with others soon to open in Coventry and Leicester. And it runs a fleet of mobile learning centres in remote rural areas.

The latest venture is part of a deliberate policy to bring the local radio station closer to its community of listeners, said Mark Hurrell, managing editor of BBC Radio Gloucestershire.

He set up the new centre with Gloscat and the local LSC after overseeing a similar operation in Stoke. "This is the original Reithian vision of educate, entertain, inform," he said.

"The doors are open to people and we're saying come on in - we haven't got two heads. And that's the thing about local radio - if you want public-service broadcasting to work, you have to say to people this is what it does. And you have to involve them."

In its first week the Gloucester centre had 150 people through the door, of whom just under half signed up for courses. They can access free lessons in IT as well as a range of other general interest subjects.

The centre also has a studio aimed at giving the public more involvement in radio programmes.

Greg Smith, principal of Gloscat, said that learners will also be referred on to other courses at his and other colleges. He said the link with the BBC is a boost for his college, although he described the process of working together as "interesting".

"There are different cultures," he said. "The BBC is an enormous organisation with its own way of doing things. We do things in our own particular way. There had to be compromises made on how we go about doing things."

According to controller Andy Griffee, the BBC's foray into learning centres was a logical extension of what its local radio stations were going already.

"About five years ago we got a bit more focused on defining the raison d'etre for BBC local radio. There aren't that many forces out there that are driven to make communities work.

"We have been putting people in touch with other people via our airwaves or helping to resolve people's problems through local radio for a long time.

So we asked if there anything else we could do, both by exploiting our airwaves and by exploiting the BBC brand."

The BBC became aware that a high proportion of its traditional local radio listeners aged in their 40s and 50s, were also those disenfranchised from the development of digital technology.

So far the corporation has ploughed pound;2.5 million into its learning centres with match funding from other partners. "We think we are now at the stage where we can make it happen without putting vast sums of licence payers' money into it," said Andy Griffee.

"We have proved to the learning and skills council and education partners that this delivers in terms of the kind of numbers and demographics that they are being challenged to reach out to."

But further education has been running learning centres in shopping malls and community centres for years. What can the BBC do that FE colleges and learndirect haven't done already?

One executive recounted how when the corporation took over the running of a learning bus in Lancashire and replaced the county council's name on the side with the BBC logo, numbers using it increased dramatically.

"It's the BBC," he said. "You don't feel threatened by the BBC. Some of the wards in Gloucester are within the 10 per cent most deprived and they are the most difficult people to reach. If something's got college written on the side, to get somebody to go inside is very difficult."

Judith Norrington, director of curriculum and quality with the Association of Colleges, said: "For years and years colleges have operated outreach centres and worked with various community centres. And so it is already in that market.

"However, working with other partners who have a very high profile such as the BBC can only be in the best interests of learners."

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