At the heart of a new sense of community;Platform;Opinion

Social inclusion and lifelong learning require a radical rethink for a neglected service, says Elizabeth Maginnis

TWO RECENT reports have given fresh impetus to community education as it searches for a new role. One came from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the other from a Government committee chaired by Douglas Osler, head of the Inspectorate.

Since local government reorganisation, community education has felt itself cast into the wilderness. But both reports stress that the skills of community education workers must be at the heart of the Government's agenda for social inclusion and lifelong learning.

Yet to interpret this boost to the profession as an endorsement of the status quo would be malign. The Osler report acknowledges that the service in its present form has had its day. It must change to match the new agenda.

Too many local authorities took the opportunity at reorganisation to clear out their community education service. The twin forces of cutbacks and lack of esteem for the service made it vulnerable to attack. Only in Edinburgh has the service continued in anything like its original infrastructure but even then fundamental changes were imposed.

Perhaps the most evident was the move to introduce devolved community centre management. Aping the changes in schools, the city was determined to subject community education resources and activities to the same rigorous scrutiny and accountability .

After the initial storm of protest a variety of interesting responses emerged. Local management committees have expressed real pleasure at being fully involved in real decision - making for the first time - and not in a patronising way . Active citizenship in action has in some cases led to questions about the accountability and effectiveness of an assigned community worker. Some have asked whether one is needed at all to manage buildings.

In one case, they have substituted the community worker with an administrator, freeing the worker for more activity in the community. This points the way for the future. Empowered management committees, supported by efficient building managers can secure the smooth running of centre programmes.

This frees community education workers to operate as area - based teams, able to properly plan, support and deliver the community learning plans which lie at the heart of the social inclusion and lifelong learning agendas. The new role of audit, planning, monitoring and assessment will be authoritative.

We need to aim for a community learning network across every community. Take North Edinburgh, for example: providers of community learning include Telford College, half a dozen community and neighbourhood centres, a plethora of voluntary organisations, two libraries, two museums, two high schools and at least six primary schools.

That's a lot of opportunity out there but it's a maze and admirable that anybody ever stumbles across the most appropriate course for them. Someone need s to take a grip of it and ensure coherent, non-duplicated provision.

Community education workers are that "someone".

Community learning plans , though , will require radical thinking and must be accessed at the most socially inclusive, socially acceptable point within the community. We should establish "virtual" lifelong learning centres in all our every library .

Libraries have no social stigma attached to them. They are widely valued by all sections of the community and would allow the fullest consultation and accessibility.

New technology allows us to connect all the various providers and libraries would allow a on e -stop shop on locally available provision and opportunity.

They are the most widely used informal adult learning facility. It's time we recognised that and put them at the heart of our planning.

Perhaps the profoundest challenge for community education, though, lies with youth work. Ask anybody about youth work in their neighbourhood and they will inevitably point to the herds of youths that congregate on every corner. The sympathetic will say it's because there i s not enough for them to do ; the cynical will speak about vandalism and graffiti and trouble.

Edinburgh invests millions every year in youth provision. It's a service that only a minority of young people ever come in touch with, no one knows what return is made on the money and it's obvious that it still isn't right. One of the great successes in recent years, though, has been the growth in the numbers of young people accepting and achieving the challenges of the Duke of Edinburgh Award.

The scheme' s focussed, activity - based programmes with an award ceremony at the end have proved attractive to many thousands of youngsters for whom mainstream youth programmes are a complete turn-off. Its conspicuous celebration of success is something we should all learn from.

Edinburgh, with the largest community education sector in Scotland, stands at the brink of a major review of the service. Renewed Government interest the gives practitioners a once in a lifetime opportunity to demonstrate their worth.

Edinburgh can stand as a model of good practice for the country . If the opportunity is flunked , the consequences are too severe to contemplate.

Elizabeth Maginnis was a member of the Osler committee and is a Labour councillor in north Edinburgh.

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