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Classrooms to cross the generations

Angus College's new study centre at Brechin High has brought everyone in the local community state-of-the-art opportunities for learning through the ages, reports Jean McLeish

It was an extraordinary reunion. They hadn't seen each other since they were girls in primary school and now they have met, 60 years on, in another educational setting. Ena Wilkie and Rose Tindal, aged 67, are back behind their desks, learning computer skills at Angus College's new Brechin Learning Centre.

Rose moved away from their country school between Fetterercairn and Auchenblae a few years after the girls started Landsend Primary together in 1946. The pair lost touch and it wasn't until they enrolled on computing courses that they met up again.

"We knew each other even before we went to school, from the time we could walk," says Ena. "We were born on the same day - she was born in the morning and I was born at tea time - and we were both born at home," Rose says.

They're impressed with how education has moved on and with the state-of-the-art facilities at the new learning centre in Brechin High. This Angus College facility was developed in partnership with Angus Council and will be used by the school and the community.

Brechin High's head, Steve Dempsey, says pupils are excited about it too. There's a trendy-looking cafe area called The Pod, with a plasma screen on the wall, a workshop for pupils' vocational construction courses, airy teaching areas and fancy laptops and computers. "Is this for us?" they ask wide-eyed as they're shown round.

We head round the side of the school to the new centre, with Mr Dempsey. The learning centre has its own entrance and a back door, which leads into the school.

"I suppose I had a hankering to be able to provide a range of vocational courses for young people, but have them delivered in Brechin High," he says. Like other schools, we've used Angus College in the past for delivering courses, but the young people had to make the journey to Angus College."

It's 14 miles to the college in Arbroath, and on days like today you'd be relieved to avoid the trip.

Angus College has four satellite learning centres in surrounding towns and previously ran some courses from small premises in the centre of Brechin. But the college was keen to expand what was on offer to the local community, and Brechin High was able to help in a way that would benefit everyone.

"We had the ability to reconfigure existing accommodation, without a new-build or an extension to the school," Mr Dempsey says.

Thus, he was able to create a big enough single space for the college to use as a centre. The result is impressive and contemporary-looking with white paintwork and smart leather sofas.

This is a collaborative venture funded by Angus Council with contributions from Angus College. It cost more than Pounds 500,000, which included funding through Schools of Ambition and the Determined to Succeed enterprise budgets and investment from Angus College.

This morning, Ena and Rose's drop-in computing class looks busy, although bad weather has kept quite a few folk at home.

Mr Dempsey says: "We have priority access for young people who want to do vocational courses. We also have a link with Montrose Academy, so they will be sending similar groups of young people to Brechin to do their vocational courses as well.

"The other side of the arrangement is the community programme which the college offers throughout the day and evening and weekends." That covers everything from evening courses in art and Spanish to a full-time national certificate in health, social and childcare course.

Belly-dancing failed to drum up enough support for a January start, and a 10-week course exploring the death industry and funeral customs didn't attract enough interest either. But it's early days and the college wants to respond to what local people want - belly dancing may still be a winner, now winter's over.

It's clear that learning is lifelong here - the age span at drop-in computing sessions has ranged from 16 to a lady of 93. "She worked her way through the basics, learned how to use email and the internet so she can communicate with her family, did her Tesco shopping and everything," says Mags Kilcullen, the tutor from Angus College who teaches the class.

At the far end of the centre, 45-year-old Mark Main is a student on the health, social and childcare course: "I gave up work in engineering to become a househusband for the last eight years," he says.

He currently works on a voluntary basis with people with learning difficulties. "I don't want to go back to engineering, so I am using the skills that I learned with my children to go into this course and maybe get a career that way," says Mr Main, whose children are now aged six and eight.

Third- and fourth-year pupils come through from school to the centre for Skills for Work courses in construction and early education and childcare. Previously, they would have travelled to college in Arbroath, but now skills like plumbing, painting and joinery, childcare and ICT are provided within the school campus.

"Once they come through the college doors, they are no longer seen as school pupils in our eyes," says Sheila Macgregor, the centre administrator. "They are young adults coming into a college situation and they are treated as college students, so it's a different ethos."

A creative space to learn for young and old

Steve Dempsey sees the Brechin Learning Centre as a place where three generations of families can learn. "Another advantage is that we see it - and pupils will see it - as part of the curriculum offered by the school," he says. "Rather than something that's 14 miles away, it's an integral part of what the school can offer you. For people who live locally, instead of having to travel 14 miles to pick up college courses, these are on their doorstep.

"Senior pupils will be able to join community-based programmes. So if we have a demand for something like Spanish, they can either offer a course which would be for our pupils and our pupils alone, or the pupils could join existing or planned courses as part of the community programme."

It's a good time for people to have a vibrant new facility on their doorstep for school and community use. As the head acknowledges, Brechin is subject to the same pressures as towns throughout the UK.

"We have lost our 'Woolies'. Commercially, it's a struggle for new shops to open up. The general feeling, notwithstanding the credit crunch of the last six months, was that things were on the way up. It was a boost to people that a facility like this was opening up at this time.

"There is definitely a feel-good factor about it. This is something new, something that we haven't had before and it's something that's opened as opposed to something that's closing down or in danger of closing down. I think it's psychologically important for people."

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