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From the cradle to the workout

Lifelong learning is at the cornerstone of Devon's plans for the future. But what is it? Sheila Purcell finds out

Vera Sabin, still game at 94, warms up for a workout in a pensioner's fitness class at Braunton School and Community College in North Devon. Elsewhere on the campus, Robbie Murray, six this month, practices his French with friends from the Junior Fun French Course - one of 152 community education classes run by the college. A group of 11 to 16-year-old pupils discuss the video they have made on the impact of crime. It is now being used by police and probation services for work with juvenile offenders.

This is real cradle-to-grave education in action, a positive role model for the nationwide Campaign for Learning launched by the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA).

This initiative, jointly supported by the Training and Enterprise Council and the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education, promotes the ideal of learning as a lifelong process for people from all walks of life.

"The aim is to encourage them to take responsibility for their own learning and for employers to invest in more education opportunities for their workers, " explains Nicola Strong, the RSA South West regional manager. "The campaign will also seek to include people who have been excluded from learning until now: the poor, the disadvantaged and the unemployed."

More than 300 organisations have formed an alliance backing the campaign, among them business heavyweights and major employers such as British Airways, BT, Sainsburys, Tate Lyle and the Bank of England.

Other alliance supporters include schools, colleges, universities, regional TECs and education and training organisations around the country.

So what is lifelong learning? Campaign supporter Graham Morris, principal and chief executive of Stroud College in Gloucestershire offers this definition: "Learning of any sort, recreational as well as academic and vocational, increases confidence. That in turn increases competence, and the ability to contribute and build, as part of a family, a community, and the wider society. The pace of change today means we have to learn throughout our lives, whatever our age."

Graham Morris's own college, where 70 and 80-somethings queue up to learn how to surf the Internet, proves his point.

The new Labour government has underlined its manifesto commitment to continuing education with the appointment of Kim Howells as minister for lifelong learning.

That commitment is already in evidence in the south west with bodies such as Learning Partnership West, an independent careers and education organisation with directors drawn from business, local authorities, the Training and Enterprise Council, and education and training establishments. As well as running eight drop-in advice and information shops, Learning Partnership West provides a framework for forging links between business, education and training.

A typical project features reciprocal work placements for teachers, employers and employees, aimed at giving both sides a better understanding of each other's working world.

John Scally, an art teacher at the Ridings High School in Winterbourne, South Gloucestershire, spent a working week in the offices of Bristol PR firm JBP Associates. He has used his new PR skills to promote the work of Ridings, and make pupils aware of the career potential of public relations.

Another LPW project placed a W H Smith manager back in the classroom for a term, helping pupils at South Twerton junior school to research, make and market a new consumer product. "What they learned," says LPW marketing manager Stephanie Delaney "Was a range of key skills: communication, team-building, problem solving, numerical skills and IT."

Most debates on lifelong learning focus on adult education and training for new skills in the workplace. But at Ladysmith First School in Exeter, headteacher Jen Cartwright believes the key lies at the other end of the age spectrum.

"Children get switched off too early, too often," she argues. "Catch them young and give them a positive attitude to learning from the word go."

Ladysmith, one of the largest first schools in Britain with 600 pupils aged from three to eight on its roll, has joined the Campaign for Learning alliance. Meanwhile, parent-governors have set up a committee to encourage closer involvement between the school, parents and the neighbouring community.

Helping parents to learn by involving them more closely with their children's education is a theme of many lifelong learning projects in the region. Devon is following up the success of its family literacy initiative with a similar project aimed at improving numeracy skills for both children and parents.

In Bournemouth, an early years drop-in centre at the Borough Council's education directorate office is seen as a model of good practice. The centre, soon to be visited by minister Kim Howells, offers toys, equipment and other resources for under-fives, together with a support worker to help parents with reading and number skills. A second centre is due to open this summer.

"Part of the process is raising standards of achievement for the children, " says Maggie Mooney, the directorate's head of lifelong learning. "If we can get both them and their parents early on, you encourage the whole learning cycle."

Devon and Cornwall TECJ, Stand 32

Devon County Council, Stand 134

RSA, Stand 107

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