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A pub with class helps out the regulars

Mary Hampshire reports on how learning computer skills in a Yorkshire pub has brought older people back into education.

CATH Lorryman is hard at work creating a spreadsheet during an information technology lesson.

Yet this classroom, untypically, has red velvet chairs, wooden benches and wall-mounted plates - the mother-of-two is studying in her local pub.

Selby College in north Yorkshire chose the Royal Oak, Hirst Courtney (population: 350), as an outreach centre to coax mature students back into learning.

About 45 people, from teen- agers to those in their seventies, signed up for a basic computing course called the 120-hour European Computer Driving Licence.

Nine laptops and one desktop terminal are permanently housed in a breakfast room at the Royal Oak. "It's a very relaxed atmosphere compared to a normal classroom," says Mrs Lorryman. Her husband Kevin has also enrolled to pick up new administration skills for his building business.

"Our kids know so much about the Internet and computing, we were frightened we'd be left behind," says the 36-year-old, who lives opposite the pub.

"But the idea of walking into a classroom after 20 years was intimidating. I probably wouldn't have bothered."

The course covers IT concepts, file management, word-processing, spreadsheets, database systems and information network systems. It is split into seven modules and completed over a year.

Funded by the Further Education Funding Council and the European Community, it leads to a British Computing Society certificate. It was launched in North Yorkshire in February and is free to the unemployed, small businesses and those recently made redundant. There's currently a waiting list.

After gaining their certificate, students can enrol for more specialised courses. Selby College and the Royal Oak have been selected as one of the Government's learndirect centres and will be offering online courses in a variety of subjects aside from computing.

Angela Kokes, information learning technology manager, at Selby College, says: "The project reflects the Government's drive to provide education in less traditional environments.

"Our main site is a former school which might put some people off. But the Royal Oak is the focal point for villagers, a place on their own doorstep where they feel comfortable.

"The course is flexible. People don't have to attend the same time, the same day, every week. It's less intimidating and much more fun."

The students have a choice of five sessions a week in afternoons and evenings.

Each slot lasts between two and four hours. Course tutors are always on hand.

Tutor Alex Tunningley, a regular at the Royal Oak, suggested the idea. She says: "Most people know one another aroud here. A lot of business is done over a drink and many people are self-employed including painters, builders and gardeners."

She adds: "I returned to education myself in my early twenties. I was frightened of being with a bunch of young teenagers and looking the odd one out. This is much more laid back."

The project's success reflects the enthusiasm of David Whitley with the new information age.

He is pulling punters into the 21st century by simultaneously making the Royal Oak an Internet pub.

"When village amenities such as the post office and shops are dying, this is a new facility which connects people locally and globally," says Mr Whitley.

Regulars who are not studying have a desktop terminal dedicated to them, allowing them to surf the net for an hourly rate. Staff have also used it to e-mail friends.

Mrs Lorryman, who is not on the telephone, says: "My two kids research their homework here as we don't have access yet."

According to Mr Whitley: "There's only one bus here a day. It's difficult for the elderly to get into town. But they do courses here, write to their friends.

Who knows, they might even end up shopping on the Internet."

The only foreseeable problem is the potential disruption for pub quiz nights.

"We had an argument during one and a regular dashed off to fact-check on the net," says Mr Whitley.

Audrey Price, 68, who ran the village post office until it closed 10 years ago, decided to brush up her skills when her son started working in Australia and Nepal.

"Half the letters I sent him went astray," she explains. "He said: 'Mum, you've got to learn e-mail.'

"I felt worried about a computer course. I knew I'd be the granny of the class.

I didn't want to look foolish.

"The e-mail module was the most important to me. I'm thrilled I can communicate with him instantaneously.

"I sent him notes from the pub every day. But now I've bought my own computer."

Susan Wellburn, 42, from nearby Carlton village, works with her husband in their business. Her nine-year-old daughter Katie hovers as Mrs Wellburn gets to grips with formulating tables.

"The kids come home from school and know it all .... and their mum doesn't know anything," she says. "So, I'm trying to fix that."

Elaine Eccles, 38, from Drax, adds: "A friend said she'd do the course if I joined her. I thought it might help with my husband's garage business.

"I've created computerised invoices. I'm also involved with school committees.

It's helpful to produce desktop posters.

"The best bit was using the Internet to research our holiday destination, Venezuela."

She adds: "I relied on my son to use a computer. Now, I can do it myself and feel a lot more confident."

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