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Mills of the mind

In Adult Learners Week, Mary Hampshire visits a steel works which is offering employees a chance to return to the classroom

Smog permeates the air, fiery molten steel lights up the darkness while tannoys and clanging noise overwhelm the senses at Tinsley Park Mill in South Yorkshire. Production workers sit for 10 hours a day, lunging at a bank of switches, inside gallery cabins suspended over the production line at the quarter-of-a-mile steel rolling mill site.

This is a man's world: men, mostly in their 40s and 50s, who joined Sheffield's steel industry in their teens with no formal qualifications and at a time when unskilled jobs were plentiful. Today, the land where steel mills once stretched from Sheffield to Rotherham has been replanted with developments such as Meadowhall, one of Britain's largest out-of-town shopping malls, employing 8,500 people - many of them women - in retail and administrative jobs.

In a bid to move with the times and to retain a competitive edge in making Sheffield's most famous product, management and trade unionists at Tinsley Park Mill have introduced a free voluntary education programme jointly funded by Sheffield Training and Enterprise Council.

Now, after a hard day's graft at the mill, owned by British Steel Engineering Steels, employees head off for the comparative tranquillity of college classrooms to study Spanish, German, French, computing, stained glass making, acoustic guitar, painting, Tai Chi, motor mechanics, clay modelling, wood carving, computer aided design and brickwork. Some, such as the stained glass and clay modelling courses, lead to accreditation points equivalent to an A-level.

John Flynn, aged 47, from Rotherham, has taken up German. "I'd always fancied it but never had the opportunity. As you get older and have a family you don't find the time. I used to work night shifts as well so that ruled out night classes, and during the day I was too tired." The idea came after a group of German businessmen visited Tinsley Park Mill.

John says: "I was wearing a shirt with German writing on it and this fella came over and said: 'Sind Sie Deutscher?' I looked at him and said 'Pardon?' He replied: 'You are not German?' That gave me the idea. If you can learn to use even pleasantries in another language, it can go a long way."

Sometimes he finds learning grammar difficult, "probably more so for someone like me than a teenager, but it doesn't worry me. Besides," he jokes, "I can order a pint of beer now."

"What we are trying to do is create a learning culture," says Bob Haley, branch chairman of the Iron and Steel Trade Confederation who helped introduce the initiative. Now aged 48, he has worked at the mill since he was 15: "Most of us left school without any qualifications and I couldn't get away quick enough. If you weren't one of the chosen few who showed initiative at an early age, you went down the pits or into the steelworks.

"But now it is more important that people have qualifications to be able to compete in the market. It's a changing world and we don't want to lag behind. This is free education for people who want another chance to learn."

The Employee Led Development scheme, which originated in the United States at a Ford car plant during the 1950s, emphasises free choice from a broad range of subjects, rather than job-related training. The scheme at Tinsley Park has been so successful that 43 of the 100-strong workforce - including office staff - have responded since September, taking adult education courses at colleges and training providers across South Yorkshire. The average take-up rate is normally about 20 to 30 per cent.

Sheffield TEC funds 50 per cent of the scheme for two years and British Steel Engineering Steels pays the remainder. Costs run at about pound;130 a head for two years, so effectively the TEC pays pound;65 per person. After two years the company may be expected to fund the scheme in full and employees could be asked for a contribution.

"It builds confidence and self-esteem as well as commitment to the firm," explains Caroline Downey, ELD account manager at Sheffield TEC. "As a result, the company also prospers from a happier and motivated workforce."

She believes that success lies partly in the fact that it has not been imposed by management "but has come from grass roots level on the shop floor".

One of the providers, Sheffield College, enrolled students on site at Tinsley Park Mill. "Walking through college doors would have been a very big step for people who have not been in education for a long time. Enrolling people on site together with their workmates was a big plus," explains Bob Haley, who studied on a 10-week computer course.

Andy Ling, aged 52, who followed in his father's, grandfather's and uncles' footsteps when he joined the steel industry at the age of 17, is attending stained glass making classes with his wife Rose. "I've made picture frames and jewellery boxes. I find it very relaxing and a good way to switch off from work. It's nice and quiet and a contrast from the production line."

Tony Emerson, aged 35, from Rotherham, who has worked in the steel industry as a production worker since he was 17, took the opportunity of learning Spanish. "Our line of work is not very demanding. Some of it is mind-numbing. You can stagnate sat there pulling switches all day. These courses help to get the old brain matter going again," he says.

"I did my 16-plus exams but I was no Einstein, and had no interest in languages when I left school. I wanted to study Spanish after visiting the Canary Islands 10 years ago but never got round to it," explains Tony, who has been to Spain eight times. "Every year I'd have a look at the prospectuses for night classes, then I'd always think of something else that I could do with the money.

"My first impressions of the scheme were 'what's the firm going to get out of it?' You don't get anything for nothing these days. I was also a bit wary. I used to think students who went to night classes were a bunch of anoraks. But there's a real mixed bunch in my class including policemen and footballers. I've really been enjoying myself. It gives me an opportunity to mix with people I wouldn't meet, so you also get a broader outlook."

For many, the benefits of adult education go beyond acquiring a novel piece of paper. As Bob Haley concludes: "At work we probably only use about 10 per cent of our potential. There's another 90 per cent there of hidden talent. This gives us the opportunity to do something entirely different."

Andy Goodall, general manager of Tinsley Park Mill, says: "When we started the scheme both Bob and myself were very wary about its success. We thought some people might think it was another bright-eyed management idea with other motives. But we have been absolutely staggered by the number of people who have taken up courses.

"It's quite clear that our industry is at a crossroads. During the next five years we will be expecting a lot more from people and will be seeing major changes in their jobs. For example, in two or three years time we expect to be 100 per cent computerised.

"We are also looking at other concepts such as self-managed teams where people will be expected to do several jobs. They won't be sat there in one pulpit from when they were a lad to an older man pulling the same levers every day.

"Training is absolutely crucial to everything the business depends on for its future. So we had to ask ourselves how we were going to encourage people who had not been in education for a long time to undertake training.

"Going to night school, whether it's to learn computing or stamp collecting, helps get people over that learning barrier. Some might view it cynically and say 'What's stamp collecting going to do for Tinsley Park Mill?' They're right in that sense. But what is important is the knock-on effect. If people have a barrier learning something like that they are probably likely to experience the same obstacle in learning four different jobs."

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