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Game over for tweed jackets and patches

'Learning cafes' could complement colleges for the PlayStation generation, Adi Bloom reports

The Pop Factory learning cafe came into being because Emyr Afan Davies did not want a police station next door to his music and TV studio.

Worried that converting a disused supermarket into a police station would compromise the neutrality of the area for his teenage audience, Mr Davies suggested an alternative: a high-tech educational environment for 16 to 24-year-olds disillusioned by conventional education, but excited by music, TV and modern youth culture.

Mr Davies, 38, heads Avanti Media Group, the company behind the Pop Factory. The studio, based in Porth, in the Rhondda Valley, has become one of the recent success stories of Wales, playing host to such diverse acts as Tom Jones and Victoria Beckham.

Since it opened, the Pop Factory has attracted local teenagers hoping for work: loitering outside, or sending in crude, handwritten CVs. Mr Davies invited them in, canvassing opinions from them over the course of a year, until he hit on the idea of a learning cafe.

"There are young people out there who have ideas that need to be nurtured and developed," he said. "But there's a frustration with education for left-brain creatives. I know I was like that: I was very fidgety at school. So we're trying to make something that relates to them naturally."

Funding for the cafe is now in place: investment for building conversion and learning-content development totals pound;6.5million. It is expected to open by June 2003. While the intention is to develop an environment where young people choose to spend time - the interior, complete with cyberdesks and ringtone handlers, will be designed by the former art director for Stereophonics - the cafe will nonetheless offer a carefully developed learning experience.

It will deliver five interactive modules, each targeted on key social and educational skills. These modules, for which ELWa, the Welsh national council for education and training, will have exclusive rights in Wales, include communication skills, teamwork and goal-setting. There will be no lecturers, only "training advisers": staff able to identify with teenagers and their needs. The aim, Mr Davies says, is to get away from the traditional notion of teachers.

"There will be no one in a suit, with a tweed jacket with patches. We need to make learning have the impact of PlayStation," he says. Instruction will be delivered through a variety of media, incorporating video sequences and references to youth culture. For example, one module will involve giving students a DVD camera, and asking them to record a video diary.

"It's almost learning by stealth," said Anna Chalkley, commercial director developing the modules. "There are very few kids around who don't want to play with gadgets. They recognise that giving them access to this sort of kit is respect. But in order to make the diary, they need to draw up a storyboard. If one kid doesn't want to - if they don't have the literacy skills - we would look into why."

The cafe, Avanti insists, will complement, rather than replace, further education. It will offer an incubation school for young entrepreneurs and a specialist pop academy for talented musicians. But it is primarily intended as a means of revitalising interest in education among potential drop-outs.

"We were impressed by the emphasis on linking up with local FE colleges," said John Graystone, chief executive of Fforwm, which represents FE colleges in Wales. "It's a conduit to a more formal system, but using an imaginative approach. It will be interesting to see what we can learn from it."

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