Learning Cities to combat exclusion

Matthew Beard reports on the birth of lifelong learning partnerships in Norwich. Senior figures from education, training and business undertook last week to promote the culture of "cradle to grave" learning in Norwich, marking its birth as a "Learning City".

This week, it is Hull's turn to join a network of cities whose goal is to promote learning not just as a bedrock of the local economy but as a tool to combat social exclusion. To oversee developments and share ideas, the Learning City Network was set up last year.

Director Stephen Martin believes Learning Cities will provide local authorities, schools, further and higher education and training and enterprise councils with a common agenda for lifelong learning. He said: "In the absence of a national steer, many local communities are developing local partnerships commensurate with the needs of local people."

The network has grown to 12 cities and learning communities, with each scheme tailored to meet specific challenges.

Sheffield, whose heavy industry has suffered huge job losses, focused on two projects. With 600 young people leaving school each year with no qualifications, universities and tertiary colleges now provide literacy courses for 14 to 19-years-olds and their parents.

Sheffield's project is also multilingual. Foreign languages have been reintroduced into primary and nursery schools (partly with a donation from the Italian government). It is hoped that by the year 2000 every school-leaver will be bilingual.

Norwich has benefited from start-up cash of Pounds 25,000 from the Department for Education and Employment, thanks to personal intervention by the Secretary of State, Gillian Shephard, who happens to be the local MP.

Norwich's City College and the University of East Anglia are looking into the possibility of setting up a "Learning Shop". The local TEC is supporting trade unions in collective bargaining for their members' learning opportunities.

The Norwich Area Development Agency is publishing a directory of learning opportunities. The private sector, as one of the main beneficiaries, will be asked to contribute.

At last week's inaugural meeting, small businesses and major local employers were called on to provide support.

The intention is to help the many young, unemployed men in the area and the middle-aged whose skills and training have become nearly obsolete. Economic planners have warned that efforts must be geared towards remedying the predicted shortage of skills in information technology and basic management.

However, outside the meeting, the enthusiasm of Norwich citizens for lifelong learning remains bridled by personal experience.

Wayne, 32, left school with no academic qualifications and still has none. After seven years taking unrelated training courses, he recently landed a job as a forklift driver.

"I did any old course just to keep the Department of Social Security off my back," he said. "For the likes of me, there's no point in all this learning if there are no jobs at the end of it."

David Gill, 59, lost his job as a senior marketing mananger with an international computer firm five years ago and believes that, for all its good intentions, lifelong learning will not remedy the ageism he has encountered in the job market.

The measures of success remain vague. In her closing speech at the Learning City's inaugural meeting in Norwich, chair Cathy Le Feuvre announced a series of proposals agreed by delegates, including a survey of attitudes to learning and a drive to recruit local businesses.

But she issued perhaps the biggest challenge of all when she warned: "We must avoid being reduced to a mere talking-shop."

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