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'I needed a kick up the bum'

For some people who had been out of school for many years, going to college was daunting. Not now. Douglas Blane reports

College can be a scary prospect for anyone out of education for a while - one that many would not even consider. An imposing building like Clydebank College's new premises on the riverbank makes it even less likely that people will drop in to find out what's on offer. It's impressive, but it's daunting.

So the college has not been content to appreciate the view and wait for people to come to them. It has been reaching out into the community, says Sharon Bowers, Routes to Learning project director. "We've been delivering a course which gives people what some don't often reach - a short, practical, supportive introduction to college life. We recruit the learners through support agencies and targeted marketing."

One appealing aspect of the three-year project to the learning advisers who deliver the six-week courses - in college and in the community - is that the one-to-one contact often needed is written into the job description, says Laura Kennedy. "We support them before the course starts, while they're on it, and after it ends, sometimes long after. Next week, I'm showing a man where his course will be. He's nervous about the first day. I'll show him around, take him into the room - even show him where the bus-stop is.

"I remember one woman I met at the front door telling me that if I hadn't done that, she wouldn't have come any further. Sometimes it's just information they need, but often it's support too."

Angela Healy was terrified on the first day of the course, she says: "I had brought up my own kids and was starting to spend a lot of time looking after my grandchildren. I decided one day that I wanted more out of life. I wanted to learn.

"But the idea was scary and so was the thought of going into a class full of people you didn't know. I'm disabled, so that makes it harder. But it was wonderful. You weren't just flung into the learning. They made you feel at ease. That first evening was all games and exercises to get to know each other."

The main concern for Fiona McCallum was her age. "I'd been working at McDonald's for 12 years. I thought college would be full of 17-year-olds straight from school and that I'd be out of place. I wanted to do it but I needed a kick up the bum - which is what Routes to Learning gave me."

Jamie Smith's situation was different from that of his classmates on the introductory course, because he had an honours degree in biology. "But I've got cerebral palsy and my job became too stressful. So I was looking to change direction. I wanted to learn more and to learn in different ways. "One evening, they got us to do an exercise in the corridor. You had to place yourself along it, depending on how much you knew. I put myself about the middle. They all said I should be at the end because of all my qualifications. I said 'I don't know enough. There's so much more to learn.'"

After the first getting-to-know-you night, the course consists of tasters on a range of topics delivered by hand-picked college lecturers, says learning adviser Fiona McCallum. "We talk to them, help them understand what it's about and the nature of our learners - adult returners who could have a number of barriers to learning. So it has to be fun and informal. It has to be relevant to their lives."

A good example was a session which appealed to Angela Healy and made her want to learn more. "It was travel and tourism which I wouldn't have thought about. They gave us tasks on local places of interest. I found out so much I didn't know - about the distillery, Loch Lomond, the Titan Crane - and I've lived here all my life."

The film and media taster made an impact on Jamie, he says. "I'm seriously considering getting into that. I like it and it's something I could work round my disability. We're going to talk to the course leader about studying it part-time."

Primary teaching beckons for Fiona. "I'd been thinking about it. It was good to learn about other possibilities, but the session on child-care decided me. We were making rattles and drums out of elastic bands - things you could work on with kids. I loved it. I'm studying three Highers at Clydebank College and plan to go to university."

People often erect barriers to learning in their own minds, says Ms Kennedy. "We give them a helping hand to break those down and let them see that they are not real - that they can learn."

Pre-access courses exist elsewhere, says Judith Millward. "But I don't think they provide the same level of support. Without that, you lose people - or never get them through the door in the first place."

Angela will still spend lots of time with her grandchildren at weekends, she says. But there is a big world beyond: "Once you get out and start learning, you realise there's more to life than Trisha. I had no confidence, no get-up-and-go. I've learned a lot.

"I've learned I can do it."

Routes to Learning is a three-year partnership project by Clydebank, Anniesland and Cumbernauld colleges. It was the student learning winner at Scotland's Colleges Annual Awards 2008.

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