Free for all in Hastings

Dorothy Walker

Centuries after King Harold came to a sticky end, Dorothy Walker reports on a new fight to prevent the disadvantaged slipping through the hole in the ICT net

For the young mums gathered in the supermarket car park in Hastings, a decisive battle has already been won. Life may present them with many challenges, but these women have just taken their first steps on to the internet. And for the first time in a long time, they feel they have taken a major step forward thanks to a new project that uses ICT to "take learning to the community".

Since January, the Hastings CommIT project has been offering ICT facilities and training to those who might otherwise have missed out on the chance to gain a foothold in today's electronic world. Funded by UK online - the Government initiative aiming to offer everyone internet access by 2005 - the project serves the town's disadvantaged areas, which are among the most deprived in the country. And with its down-to-earth approach, CommIT is not only kindling enthusiasm for ICT, it is also helping people to use their new-found knowledge as a springboard to greater things.

The basic offerings - all free - are introductory computer taster courses, followed by a variety of sessions on topics such as email and desktop publishing. They are held at a new UK online centre in the middle of town, but the hallmark of CommIT is the way that people can also learn at the heart of their community, in everyday places and in ways tailored to suit their lifestyles.

For trainers, that might mean taking laptop machines to a flat where mothers meet for a chat after dropping their children off at school. Or taking CommIT's specially equipped van to a supermarket, clinic or community centre - one of 16 "waypoints" fitted with wireless links that connect the computers in the van to the internet.

Mark Barfoot, the project's former training manager, says: "When we applied for funding we made it clear that we were going to spend a lot of time talking to communities, finding out what the real needs are. The more we talk, the more we realise there are a lot of people who do not want to be left behind. They are raring to go - they really want to learn about technology because they have heard good things about how it can affect their life.

"But no matter how fascinating a course might be, if it doesn't fit in with someone's lifestyle it's off the agenda. A community creche can only operate for two hours a day, so there is no point in asking mothers to attend a centre three miles away. And many elderly people don't like going out after dark, so evening courses are out."

A whole range of organisations have joined forces behind the project, making the pound;1 million budget go further and bringing different sections of the community together. The bid for funding was led by the East Sussex Local Education Authority, in a partnership which included Hastings College of Arts and Technology, Sussex Careers, local libraries and voluntary organisations. All are represented on a steering group which oversees the project.

The bid was prompted by the need to find new premises for the Hastings Community Learning Centre, which provides a wide variety of education, including teacher training. The LEA decided that the new building should also house a UK online centre aimed at those adults with the most need - the unemployed, lone parents, ethnic minorities, asylum seekers and one of the largest populations of retired people in Europe. Hastings has notoriously bad road and rail links, making commuting difficult.

Close links with Hastings College not only provide trainers for courses, but also give enthusiastic learners a way of pursuing further qualifications after UK online. Barfoot - a former IT executive who hails from one of the deprived estates served by the project - knows from personal experience that a progression path is essential. "One of the worst mistakes you can make is to lose the faith of those people you have helped," he explains.

Adults who would shun anything that seemed like going back to school are tempted by courses like Fun to Learn, which presents business software in fun contexts - tracking football League Tables with the aid of a spreadsheet is a popular activity. "The project provides a non-threatening environment for people to move on towards qualifications," sums up manager Sue Weiner.

Advantages

* Builds confidence as well as ICT skills

* Easy to opt in, learning in familiar, convenient surroundings

* Learners with few opportunities to socialise meet new contacts

* A springboard for further education

* Children benefit from parents' new enthusiasm for ICT and learning Actions

* Assess individual needs, rather than taking a top-down approach

* Enlist the support of local champions

* Adapt offerings to suit lifestyles and interests

* Provide opportunities to learn in relaxed, everyday settings

* Ensure people can set their sights on further challenges Fact file

* ICT budget: pound;250,000

* Technology: network of 27 PCs, 10 laptops, two digital projectors, two interactive whiteboards, two printers and a scanner, spread across three classrooms. Also a transporter van with seven laptops and printer, which connect to the UK online centre and the internet via wireless links at 16 key venues.

* ICT suppliers: equipment supplied and installed by XMA. Tel: 0115 8464000 www.xma.co.uk

* Hastings CommIT

Tel: 01424 436738 admin@hastingscommit.org.uk

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Dorothy Walker

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