Can a school run a computer training business? Yes, according to an increasing number of schools in the North-east. After all, where better than a school to base a local service which responds to local needs, not only in terms of the sort of courses offered, but also when they are offered?
Businesses in rural or outlying communities can find it difficult to release staff to travel to major urban areas, and schools are often the largest employers in these areas. They are local, have the space and, with the right equipment, would be an ideal setting for courses in information and communications technology (ICT). An added bonus is that schools would use the facilities too.
However, for such a service to work, it has to be of the highest quality - tutors must be experienced; the equipment state-of-the-art; the premises of a good standard; and courses have to be value for money. This is the thinking behind the AXiS project now thriving in 13 schools in north east England. Businessmen and others are flocking back to school, and are seeing it as a positive, career enhancing move.
The idea emerged from a conference called Future Search in April l997 when headteachers, IT training providers and representatives from the Department of Trade and Industry's Innovation Unit met to work out a scheme which could deliver high quality, flexible and local IT training to the North-east.
The concept of AXiS Computer Learning Centres based on school premises was born. The emphasis is on collaboration: between schools and colleges, and between education and local business. Tutors are mainly recruited from local colleges, but some come from the schools.
A first bid for European funding was successful to the tune of pound;375,000 and was matched by UK private and public sector funds, and last year the project received another pound;500,000-plus matched funding to bring an additional six schools on board. Eventually it is hoped to take many more schools into the project, and possibly extend beyond the North-east.
Prudhoe Community High School, a Northumberland Technology College, was a pioneer. It set up its AXiS Centre in two light and airy rooms converted to the standards of a business environment. With the best seating and adjustable, non-glare lighting to complement two networks - one with 15 and the other with 20 stations - complete with Internet facilities, scanners and other accessories, the rooms also have the latest videoconferencing technology. Courses are run four evenings a week and every Saturday, and the school also has a trailer equipped with the latest ICT equipment available for businesses to hire for courses.
It doesn't stop there. Exploiting Further Education Funding Council and Single Regeneration grants, Prudhoe has also established an "outpost" in the town's main street. Called the Open Door Community Learning Centre it organises courses five days a week. Always fully subscribed, they range from the basic, eg keyboarding skills, spreadsheets and databases, through intermediate NVQ courses, to advanced courses, like the new RSA Integrated Business Technology stage 3. Also on offer are custom-built courses for local businesses.
Like all AXiS Centres, the Prudhoe centre also delivers the highly successful Cyberskills IT awareness-raising course, mainly aimed at owners and managers, and was among the first to offer the new European Computer Driving Licence - a basic computing course, leading to an EU recognised certificate.
It sounds a lot for a school to take on, but the task is made easier by the delegation of responsibility for the equipment and computer environment to a local, Hexham-based consultancy, TNL, which advises on the quality necessary for an approved centre and co-ordinates activities between the schools.
"One of the great strengths of AXiS is that everyone is working to the same clearly defined standards for delivery of courses, teaching environment and the equipment they use," says Bernie Salvin, TNL's managing director. "This gives real credibility in the business community".
"Everyone who uses an AXiS centre knows exactly what they'll receive - and so do potential employers," she adds.
The benefits for the schools are also many. "This way a school is ensured the latest technological equipment," says John Baumber - former head of Prudhoe Community High School, and now head of Rivington and Blackrod High School near Bolton - who spearheaded the project. He adds that as schools worked in partnership, they could share knowledge and resources.
He also feels that it is "a moral thing". "We wanted to maximise the use of the resources which we're building up for the good of all the community. I don't see it as a great earner, but it does make enough to contribute to the maintenance of the equipment and its periodic updating." He points out that, although TNL's fee is currently covered by the EU grant, eventually the projects will have to become self-financing through fees charged for the training they offer.
Strategic decisions for AXiS centres are generally made by a working group of heads, while the schools appoint a site co-ordinator to manage the centres and to liaise with each other and TNL on their day-to-day operation.
Launched in March last year by the Prime Minister, the AXiS Centre at Ferryhill Comprehensive School in County Durham is run as an outreach department of the local FE college, and is staffed by teachers and lecturers from the school and college. The school advertised its services and has attracted a wide range of people and companies. Head Steve Gater is enthusiastic: "We're providing a service that otherwise wouldn't be there. Sixth-form students work side by side with mums and dads and local businessmen. Staff from companies such as the local Top Shop and Dorothy Perkins have been given custom-built courses.
All the schools are reporting a tremendous response. "We are confident the network will now roll out across the rest of the country," says John Baumber.
AXiS Centres www.axiscentres.org.uk Bernie Salvin, TNL 01434 600555 email@example.com.
Caroline Warburton, Open Door Community Learning Centre 01661 836215 firstname.lastname@example.org