Cleaners mop up new knowledge

Helen Hague

There is a new cohort of enthusiastic learners at Lewisham College who are already familiar with some aspects of life there - they help to keep the classrooms and corridors clean.

The new group of learners are employed by Serviceteam, a contract cleaning company. Jenny Goode, a supervisor, is one of them. She tried a traditional course, but did not really have enough time.

"I can put in whatever time I can spare," she says. "It's excellent. My grandchildren say, 'Can I send you an email?' and I say, "No, I haven't got there yet!"

Lewisham has a strong track record in widening participation. It chimes with the inclusive ethos of the college that cleaners are welcomed into the learning loop through its learndirect centre, which opened in November.

It may be email and computing today, but if cleaning staff get a taste for online learning, there are plenty more courses. The centre is a learndirect hub, and is open from 9am to 8pm. The college also runs the centre for a TUC hub, linked to two kiosks - one in a local trade union office, the other within a Greenwich council department.

Frances Sweeney, head of learning centres at Lewisham, says learndirect is "a small but important part" of learning development at the college - well suited to meet the needs of non-traditional adult learners.

"It's a good feeder route for those new to learning who are keen to pick up new skills. That first step through the door of an FE college can be a bit intimidating. The learndirect centre gives a gentle introduction, preparing people who have been away from a learning environment for the complexities of college life. They may then decide to take a mainstream college course."

All those registering for a September college course are being invited to come down to the learndirect centre on a "keep warm" basis before the new academic year starts.

Wigan and Leigh College, a leading learndirect hub partner in the North-west, runs 16 learning centres spread across the borough. Last year, more than 5,600 new learndirect learners were recruited: only 10 per cent were existing college students. Dave Hindley, head of distributive learning at the college, says involvement with learndirect has had a "beneficial effect" on enrolment, with some learndirect learners progressing to mainstream courses. "Flexible bite-sized learning brings new learners who would not have attended traditional courses. But some get an appetite for learning and go on to enrol in college courses."

Most learners were keen to improve their IT skills to boost their job prospects: the demise of the coal and textile industries has left above-average unemployment. Such courses are proving to be particularly attractive to 35 to 45-year-olds who are seeking new careers. Colleges are also playing a key role in promoting learndirect to small and medium-sized businesses.

This was explored in a recent joint report by the Association of Colleges and the University for Industry on how to increase take-up of learning by small businesses. The study gathered data on best practice through case studies. Innovative measures were highlighted to encourage others to think strategically on how to build learndirect with a group notoriously hard to crack.

At West Nottinghamshire College, two learndirect cars helped to spread the word to seemingly recalcitrant small and medium-size businesses. These learning vehicles yielded many registrations on learndirect courses.

Bury College is another "best practice" example cited. It now has a dedicated business unit, Business Solutions, and has built up a database of 350 small firms through working with various partners, including Euro-pean Social Fund projects.

A specialist learning centre has opened in the town, and 15 small firms were signed up in its first promotion. Networking and research to match courses with company needs is yielding results. But a scattergun approach is likely to be wasteful once the brand is established. Learndirect has a very wide remit - from helping cleaners email their grandchildren to bolstering learning in SMEs, promoting life-long learning and boosting UKplc's coffers.

The political will is there, the brand is high-profile, and there is great hunger for IT skills. And for those keen on monitoring how it will all pan out, no doubt learndirect's success will be rigorously evaluated. And not just by the Government.

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Helen Hague

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