Locals drink to learning

Drinkers in pubs in the small Shropshire market town of Craven Arms were surprised to see mouse pads instead of beer mats on the bar.

And, where they used to pop into the village hall for a cake and a cup of tea, they are now invited to sample bite-sized chunks of learning.

In fact, Val Lewis, community engagement manager for Switch on Shropshire, is busy installing broadband connections and computers, printers and scanners into every public place.

It is all part of the Government's testbed learning communities initiative.

Switch on Shropshire is a partnership of groups ranging from community volunteers to the local councils.

"We have a consultation meeting bringing together representatives from the community. It's managed by them," says Ms Lewis, who will work with such groups for the next two years, advising on how to run and fund the facilities and establish connections with local learning providers.

Although unemployment in Craven Arms is low, many jobs are part-time, low skilled and poorly paid. There is no secondary school or further education college and few public transport links.

"It just isn't a town that is generating access to learning or employment," says Ms Lewis.

And there are other barriers to learning. Some people have been brought up to believe that learning stops when you go out to work at 16 or when you stay at home to look after your family, she says. "They don't believe they have the right or ability to be a learner."

If people are to be won over to learning, it must start with something that interests them. Research in the supermarket cafe and among employers, on training courses, and among all kinds of community groups, produced the answer: food, football and information technology. Bite-size courses on these subjects could develop a taste for further learning, leading to skills training and qualifications.

Meanwhile, in Easington, County Durham, the "Blooming Marvellous" project to put up 5,000 hanging baskets in two villages involved primary schools, Sure Start, libraries, the local rugby club, a film company and the Wildlife Trust.

Educational spin-offs included writing instructions on how to fill the baskets, young people working with pensioners to pick up litter, changes to the primary curriculum, creating school gardens, and plans for a future project on allotments.

And four people started training in horticulture to set up a plant nursery, which Kate Welsh of Easington Action Team for Jobs hopes will become a not-for-profit business.

"We see the testbed learning community as a way of engaging people into learning, enterprise and employment," says Ms Welsh, who works for Jobcentre Plus. "We've struggled to change the culture and make it more acceptable for people to move into learning and other areas."

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