Dawn Marriott missed her Saturday morning shopping but wasn't complaining. She had given up the bustle of the shops to attend the weekend college run by Bournville College of Further Education in Birmingham. Her full-time job is developing photographs and she wanted to learn keyboard skills to add another string to her bow. "This course suits me down to the ground," said Dawn, 29. "I work Monday to Friday and could not make the evenings. I was really pleased to find a Saturday course."
Across the corridor, Steve Preston, aged 35, who works for the Land Rover Group in Solihull, was grappling with spreadsheets, word processing and databases. "I am having to use these things more and more at work and I needed to get trained up. We have computers at home and it is nice to come here in this group environment and improve my skills."
Normally he would be looking after his two young boys, but they are with their mum. After each session, he goes home to demonstrate his new skills. It is likely that once he finishes the course, he and his wife will reverse roles, and she will get the chance to learn new skills.
Both students were attracted to their courses through a scheme funded by the Birmingham Training and Enterprise Council. The council offers a career-training voucher, worth Pounds 70, that pays for a six-week taster course at the college. They give students the opportunity to try out a subject, find out more about their vocation and then decide whether to pursue it.
The council had two objectives: improving access to education and training by providing a wider range of opportunities for people, and improving the skills base of the workforce by encouraging people with low, or no, qualifications back into learning.
Students have to be aged 19 or over but not retired, and should not hold qualifications above national vocational qualification level two. Weekend college was deliberately targeted at a special group of employed people who were enthusiastic or ambitious about improving their skills, gaining new qualifications and trying new directions. The young and unemployed were already catered for in TEC mainstream programmes. Nevertheless, there has recently been some convergence: the present programme is offered to unemployed people who are not receiving benefits, for example, women on a career break.
There's an element of fun at the Saturday classes. Non TEC-directed classes go on at the same time: line-dancing in the gym is a big attraction.
"It's a different culture on Saturday," said Don Lynch, an information technology tutor and deputy co-ordinator of the weekend programme. "The students are virtually all employed: they are highly motivated and they know exactly what they want. The courses are intensive - the students are in and out - it is more like a university on a Saturday."
Graham Vickery, who co-ordinates evening and weekend classes, says the Saturday sessions provide opportunities for people previously disenfranchised. They are people in work - he stresses that other schemes exist for unemployed people - who may be unable to commit themselves to an evening programme. Research by TECs has shown that women with children are more able to take up weekend courses and may prefer lessons in the morning, rather than face a nightbus journey to college, Don Lynch thinks the idea could go further. "The TEC vouchers have been extremely useful. People realise they can get a free course, which they cannot refuse. But then many of them come back, and so these are feeders to other courses.
"I think Saturday college could be extended greatly. We could do other vocational areas, such as an introduction to accounting, media studies, languages. If we did Saturday and Sunday we could offer even more substantial courses leading to qualifications. Buildings like this are vacant at weekends across the nation and there is no reason why this should be so."
Bournville College continually reviews the provision it offers. "At Saturday college, most of our students are white, middle-aged, middle-class and female," said Graham Vickery. The college is not based in the city but hovers in the middle of a dual carriageway. You would not walk to it, but almost certainly drive. The college is some distance from council housing estates.
Normal weekday attendance is much more varied than Saturdays, a balance between men and women, blacks and whites, many from the 16-19 age group, and especially, people with learning or physical disabilities, in which the college takes a special interest. Mr Vickery sees great potential for growth, establishing courses which appeal to men as much as women, encouraging people to see Saturday study as normal and as easy as evening study.
An informal survey of the Saturday morning students has revealed that they would be less keen to attend on Saturday afternoons or on Sundays. "They might be prepared to do aerobics or dancing," said Mr Vickery, "but people do not want to get into serious study at these other weekend times. And we could not justify opening the college unless they did."
Birmingham TEC has analysed the weekend take-up in eight local centres, revealing an overwhelming need for upgrading skills in information technology. Some 94 per cent of respondents said they used weekend college to gain new skills for work, switching from manual to computerised work.
Steve Preston, of Land Rover, pointed out that it is rare for people in work to be offered concessions to enable them to improve their skills. This programme helps them to do this. But it is not directed at the worst off. Everyone else can benefit too.