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Drinkers go on-line at the bar

THE WESTWAY is a huge pub on the sprawling Highfields estate in Stafford.

In the bar, customers play pool surrounded by banks of television sets and a noticeboard advertises bingo sessions and Sky Sport. But soon there will be another diversion here - classes in computing and basic skills.

Stafford College has won a pound;223,300 bid to help equip the Westway as a learning pub - part of the Government's programme to develop a national network of computer learning centres nationally.

The college opened its first two learning pubs in February last year, in a blaze of publicity. College staff were even interviewed in the bar by a Brazilian film crew.

Now a year on, the college insists that learning pubs offer far more than just good PR, and that they continue to attract adult learners who might not otherwise go near a campus.

Stafford College was well placed to develop learning pubs. It trains staff for the licensing trade throughout the UK and has strong links with big breweries.

The college had already had some success with classes in a room upstairs at the Bird in Hand, a pub across the road from its campus.

The learning pub project took the idea a step further. Last year the first two pubs, The Cottage in Kingswinford and The Kings Arms in Eccleshall, began offering free and low-cost courses in partnership with the college.

The Kings Arms is a 16th century coaching inn, and almost inevitably, there is reputed to be a ghost. On the way to the bar, a poster asks "Are you thirsty for knowledge?"

On a Tuesday evening, computers are hauled out of a secure cupboard and a room is given over to classes. There's also more informal, one-to-one tutoring.

Stdents are offered courses in everyday maths, reading and writing, English for speakers of other languages and basic computing.

Frances Wallace, 54, lives in Eccleshall. She initially came in to improve her English and Maths. But, having realised she wanted a more advanced course than they could offer her, enterprising organisers persuaded her to volunteer as a tutor.

She took a tutoring course, and is now helping a Portuguese student with his English. She says: "You don't feel as though you're in a class. If you can't read or write, the idea of going into a college must be quite off-putting.

"Here you can meet your tutor and it looks as though you're just talking to somebody in the pub."

Since the pubs project began, 143 people have enrolled, and 130 have gained a qualification.

Half of those who enrolled are continuing with basic skills or other FE programmes, five have gone on to other forms of training and 23 have gone on into voluntary or community work.

Now project manager Tina Richardson believes that the latest learning pub, The Westway, will be an ideal location.

The Highfields estate has high unemployment and the college sees the pub as another way of reaching into the community.

"With the Westway, we're hoping to branch out and offer more vocational courses," she says. "We're building links with local businesses, asking them what skills they need."

Ministers have already toasted the concept of the learning pub but will it succeed long term?

"I think it will," says Tina Richardson. "Once it becomes accepted and people see they're getting certificates, and they can progress to other courses, it develops its own legitimacy."

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