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On course for learning;FE Focus

As a prelude to Adult Learners' Week, Martin Whittaker looks at what some companies are doing to provide lifelong learning opportunities for their employees.

GOLF is steadily catching on among the workforce at Lawrence-Allen Colour Printers in Weston-super-Mare. Once a week a group of staff, from managers down to shop-floor workers, have been heading down to Weston Golf Centre after work to learn the basics or to improve their swing.

The company also offers its employees free courses in photography, computing, ceramics, navigation and wine appreciation.

Buyer Andy Price, 26, chose golf for beginners: "There are a couple of managers there and a few girls from accounts. It's nice to be outside the work environment, having a bit of fun.

"Generally when people talk about courses in the workplace, it's normally something you are pushed into. But if I'm pushed into something I don't want to do it. With these courses we've got a good selection and it's something you are choosing yourself. I think it's a great idea."

The Return to Learn scheme has been running at Lawrence-Allen for a year. Of the company's 77 employees, 23 have so far signed up for the courses, which are taught in partnership with Weston College.

Margaret Colbridge, the firm's administration manager, helped promote the scheme among staff and believes it has been a success.

"I thought it was a good idea," she said. "I think a lot of people would probably like the chance to get to evening classes, but are somehow put off by the fear that they're too old, or it's too late. But we have overcome that barrier.

"We've got some new people who have never been on a course before. Because they have seen how happy other people have been on the courses, they want to try it themselves."

Val Cole, a 51-year-old accounts clerk, takes Spanish in her lunchbreak. "It's very convenient," she said. "I wouldn't have done it if it hadn't been made available through work. If I had to make the effort to go in the evening, I probably wouldn't bother."

The scheme is run by Learning Partnership West - a private Bristol-based agency that runs the Career Service and promotes lifelong learning. The company pays half the cost of an employee's first course, with the rest met by the agency. If staff go on a further course they pay one-third themselves, with the remainder subsidised.

There are more than 600 schemes like this throughout Britain, aimed at employers sponsoring non work-related training.

So are firms willing? "My experience has been that it's quite difficult to get firms to take part," said Cathy Freeman, Learning Partnership West's development manager. "I spend a lot of time marketing the initiative. But companies don't immediately see the benefits to the business of being involved in a scheme like this."

She said that based on studies of the project so far, benefits to the company include improved customer service, better attendance and time keeping, reduction in staff turnover and a better quality of product.

Car giant Ford was the first in Britain to recognise the value of promoting education and training among the workforce.

Since 1989 the company, in partnership with trade unions, has offered an employee development and assistance programme, offering grants to all workers towards education and training.

Since then others have followed. Scottish Power, for example, offers 700 learning programmes and has some 46 "open learning centres" - dedicated rooms with computer terminals or libraries.

Trade unions too have become heavily involved. Unison, the public-sector union, has set up an Open College to respond to the needs of its 1.4 million members, operating with institutions such as Ruskin College and Sheffield Hallam University.

Simon Greenly, chairman of the Campaign for Learning, praises companies like Scottish Power, Ford, BP, British Aerospace and Unipart for their commitment to promoting learning in the workplace.

But he added: "There are a few big companies making an enormous effort and there is a whole mass of companies talking about it and actually doing nothing.

"When any company hits recession the first thing they chop is the old traditional training budget. It's because learning is generally about a longer-term issue and I can think of some big companies who at the moment are undermining any concept of learning, because they are entirely focused on today and probably the profits of five past ten this morning - that is their focus," Mr Greenly said.

How does he think Britain compares internationally? "The United States is taking a huge lead, and emerging countries like Singapore are role models for understanding the importance of learning.

"We are not at the bottom of the heap, but we're certainly not at the top of it either - we're muddling around in the middle as usual."

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