Richmond upon Thames College senior lecturer Bob Harris, who is also a member of the House of Commons Environment Group, could not help noticing the effects of the British Aerospace closure in Kingston. As well as teaching in a college at the very heart of the defence industry, he lived opposite the British Aerospace site. Scientists, architects and other highly-qualified staff - many approaching the final years of their working lives - are not generally perceived to be the natural market for FE institutions. But Bob Harris's phone call to Richmond council was the first step towards an innovative coalition of concerned professionals.
What followed was a joint bid by Richmond upon Thames College, and Richmond and Kingston councils, for funding from KOVNER, an EC body created specifically to support those affected by redundancies in the defence industry. A well-prepared bid resulted in more than Pounds 150,000, and work began on strategic planning.
Bob Harris was convinced that if the initiative was to work, "those benefiting would need to be 'shocked' out of their formulated views of employment and unemployment".
"We established a 'work, not employment' principle. Most courses for the unemployed in further education centre on finding a traditional job. We switched the emphasis to exploring scientific and technological ideas, believing that employment may well follow."
Working with the Energy Efficiency Institute, the Ecological Design Association, Mr Harris and Annette Conder-Prill, who specialises in conceptual attitudes to redundancy, came up with two 30-week courses: Development of Ideas, and Energy Management in Industry. Both included an element of personal development as well as specialist subject knowledge.
"Student self-esteem was pretty low to start with," says Mr Harris. "It was important that we established an honest relationship with our students - they, and we, had to accept that there was a very real possibility that they may never work again, in the traditional, fixed employment sense. We found Annette Conder-Prill's input on the attitude side of things increasing as the programmes developed; interestingly it was at the request of the students. "
The coursework also centred on a new philosophy in further education terms; an "uncensored" study ethic was written into the programmes, an aspect the managers felt was vital in view of the contentious nature of some of the work involved. At the start of the course, students were inundated with interactive video research on a wide range of subjects, an approach deliberately designed to place them in a state of intellectual chaos, helping the students to discard pre-conceived ideas on science and the environment.
Scientific study was drawn from a wide variety of areas, which included alternative concepts, and "discarded" science.
Students were encouraged to be self-starting, and arranged their own contacts with outside agencies. As study became more complex and ground-breaking, confidence returned. One student is a particular example. After producing pioneering work in rock-dust technology, he is now helping to lead the first national conference on the subject in the UK.
Substantial projects in areas such as Chinese science, a pilot programme for Seasonal Affective Disorder, and hydrogen technology (which meant establishing the first hydrogen and oxygen making and mixing equipment in the UK) enabled the students to develop a more holistic approach to their thinking.
Marketing the programmes also required a new approach. As Bob Harris says: "Marketing anything new is difficult, but this required very careful consideration. We had to gain the confidence of the students so we abandoned the usual process of holding individual interviews and instead began to talk to them as a group and ask for their views. Although we did not set age limits, we found that most students were over 45 and many were confused, angry, and worried about the future. Emotions ran high."
The programmes, and subsequent student successes, have achieved international acclaim, though it was the individual student growth and increased self-esteem which gave the designers of the initiative most satisfaction. Several students have now returned to work. "They've put themselves back into the driving seat, which at 55 is quite a position to be in," says Mr Harris.
Students also gained from an innovative approach to course planning. "We wanted to create multi-disciplined student groups who could add to each other's skill banks," Bob Harris says. The groups developed an important team approach to their work, so much so that ex-students who went on to find employment return on a regular basis to advise new students on the issues relating to re-employment.
The programmes will be held again early next year, with new students reaping the benefits of the college's first-year experiences. A dedicated Internet line is planned, which will give students and tutors the chance to communicate with scientists, engineers, and technologists throughout the world.