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Belly dancing changes lives

Help people who are missing out on education said Helena Kennedy. Martin Whittaker reports on one attempt to do just that

At the age of 44, Dot Childs is just getting to grips with a computer.

She admits: "I didn't know anything about them when I first came here. It terrified me even to switch one on. But now I'm enjoying it and I can understand why people get hooked."

Dot is one of a number of adults learning basic word processing. Her classes are held at Westfields youth and community centre, on a run-down estate in Hesters Way, Cheltenham.

The Gloucestershire spa town is a major tourist attraction, famed for its Gold Cup race meetings, Regency buildings and affluent charm.

Tourists do not venture to areas like Hesters Way where most of the properties were built between the war and the mid-Sixties. They were needed to accommodate workers at the nearby Government spy base GCHQ and the then expanding aerospace and engineering industries. Today the area has high unemployment and 27 per cent of householders are lone parents.

Earlier this year Hesters Way made national headlines when, in response to a lack of a full-time doctor's surgery, members of the local neighbourhood project wrote to the international aid agency Medicins Sans Fronti res to ask for help. The stunt worked - a practice has now expressed interest in moving on to the estate.

The Hesters Way Neighbourhood Project is also getting results in providing community-based education and training.

This scheme has been running for more than two years, bringing education on to the estate, with courses, mostly accredited, ranging from the information technology basics which are helping Dot Childs overcome her fear of computers, to arts and crafts and belly dancing.

The roots of the Hesters Way Project go back to self-help initiatives started by a local women's group back in the mid 1980s. Now the project is one of seven working together as a network throughout Gloucestershire, and run by a partnership of local authorities, FE colleges and the training and enterprise company.

Bernice Thomson has helped to develop the Hesters Way project. She has lived in the area for 12 years, and graduated through the adult learning process.

Today she is employed by Gloucestershire College of Arts and Technology (Gloscat) as community liaison officer, and chairs the Hesters Way project's management committee.

She says: "Having such a high profile in the community means I have a lot of contacts. That can be very useful for the work I do for Gloscat. And I have been through the same process as these people.

"Education and training are seen as essential to community development - it touches so many areas. All these neighbourhood projects are committed to educational and training courses.

"In fact we have been building a model of the neighbourhood college as a concept. We are not thinking of building campuses out in the neighbourhood, but building partnerships and looking at a way of working so that we can offer a regular curriculum."

This is still in its very early stages, but Bernice sees this as a logical progression from the education work already done by the neighbourhood projects.

Funding for these schemes has come from a variety of sources, including the European Social Fund, the county's adult continuing education team and the private sector.

And they have just won a Pounds 187,000 lottery grant to employ more "training enabling workers". It is their job to go in, identify education needs and effectively recruit students.

Sue Blackmon does this job in Hesters Way. She says: "My job is finding out what people would like to do and identify the needs of potential clients, then finding a venue and tutors, most of who come through Gloscat, and seeing they run smoothly.

"I have a very close liaison with the clients I have, even if they're on a course. If there's any problem whether it's course-related or family-related, I will try and sort it out."

But how does she "sell" courses among a section of the population unlikely to go near a campus? With some, it's a matter of offering them something that might lead them into learning. A course like belly dancing might attract someone who wasn't ready for an academic course, but could led them back into learning.

"The courses we run on the estate are a step away from college," she says. "It's a way of introducing them to a structured activity within a time period. And it's also where they can socialise. It builds up self-esteem and self-confidence. They learn to value themselves."

Up in the computer room, tutor Helen Evans is overseeing the class learning word processing. She works for Gloscat on three of the county's neighbourhood projects.

She says she often has to cope with the unexpected, arriving at a village hall in some remote corner of the Cotswolds to find there's nowhere to plug in her laptops.

"But I think that's part of the reason why I enjoy it. It's not only because it's first-step provision for the students, but no two days are ever the same.

"I have taught for four hours in a room where the burglar alarm has gone off. But people are desperate to do the classes, they don't want to go home.

"Considering the barriers students have to get over to get here in the first place, their commitment is incredible."

There are similar projects bringing education into deprived sections of the community as part of wider schemes in other parts of the country, including Hull, Sheffield and Norwich.

The Hesters Way project and others like it make use of partnerships of agencies to raise participation in education, as promoted by Helena Kennedy in her report on further education.

Sue Cara, associate director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, agrees the partnership approach is the way forward.

However, such schemes are still piecemeal and there is no underlying national strategy. Many of these projects rely on short-term funding.

And with news that FE colleges need an extra Pounds 200 million a year just to stave off financial crisis, isn't education in the community likely to be low on colleges' lists of priorities?

Sue Cara says: "One of the things Helena Kennedy is saying is that there should be some refocusing so that this kind of work, which is expensive and difficult to do, is better rewarded. It's about trying to make long-term core funds available to FE colleges to make this work more attractive.

"One approach she suggested was extra funding for people with particular postcodes, allowing mainstream funding to be targeted to areas where participation is least.

"People with such poor experiences and expectations from education are not going to come unless people go to them, and meet them maybe half way.

"It's crucial if widening participation is going to be a reality, that there's some adjustment and resources are made available for this kind of work. "

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