A former mining valley is reborn

6th December 1996 at 00:00
Stephen Hoare reports on the growth of a college that is bringing new businesses to South Yorkshire.

As Korean and German electronics companies bring new employment to South Yorkshire's former mining communities, Dearne Valley College has seen student numbers surge - from 3,000 two years ago to nearly 7,000, full and part time. And the college is poised for further expansion.

Created out of the old Rockingham College in Rotherham, where it still occupies two sites, Dearne Valley College opened for business this September in a Pounds 6.5 million flagship building paid for by City Challenge and European Regional Development Funds.

Dearne Valley - an area bordered by Doncaster, Rotherham and Barnsley - is now Britain's biggest enterprise zone, and generous government grants are attracting overseas inward investors, funding land reclamation for development on a massive scale. The college's expansion plans - backed by the Further Education Funding Council - are based on projections that the enterprise zone will lead to the creation of 6,000 new industrial- and service-sector jobs by 2005.

The college is supported by the local development agency, Dearne Valley Partnership, which sees the new college as the key to attracting new businesses to the area - a vision shared by Barnsley and Rotherham Training and Entreprise Councils, which are providing generous backing for adult retraining and apprenticeships.

With the launch of the new college comes a change in identity - a more entrepreneurial approach to attracting students and funding. Principal Don Davison says: "We offer students anything from basic skills through to a Master's degree. We're discussing with our business clients how best we can work together to provide opportunities for meeting their training needs. Like regeneration, it's all about building partnerships."

The college's student profile is starting to reflect structural changes in employment. Where once men were the only breadwinners and working down the pit was the only source of employment, the new jobs open up a far wider range of opportunities, everything from semi-skilled assembly work through to managerial and service sector jobs. And although the jobs are lower paid than mining, they open more opportunities for women. As a result 60 per cent of the intake are women and two-thirds are mature students over the age of 25 wishing to gain new skills.

Mr Davison sees his biggest challenge as changing people's aspirations and firing their motivation to study - no easy task in an area where unemployment stands at 20 per cent and where many of the long-term unemployed lack the basic literacy and numeracy skills to get on courses leading to recognised qualifications.

Dearne Valley's growth areas are General National Vocational Qualifications in information technology and computing, business administration, catering, health and social care and media studies. And with a boom in local sports facilities and fitness centres, the college has 300 students following BTEC Nationals and GNVQs in sport and leisure, and travel and tourism courses - a far cry from the skills training in mining, steelwork and engineering that was once the staple of neighbouring colleges in Barnsley and Rotherham.

A key part of the college's new mission statement is to provide a breadth of educational opportunities that is accessible and flexible enough to meet the needs of local communities and to help people - many of whom are disadvantaged - overcome barriers to education. Most courses are modular - Mr Davison calls them "roll on-roll off" - allowing students to mix and match training with the demands of full- or part-time jobs and child-rearing. The college also provides cr che facilities for students and a free bus service between the college's three sites and local train stations.

However, the key to the college's future success must lie in its ability to provide for a wide range of abilities and interests on one site. Dearne Valley College shares its new building with a department of Sheffield University, encouraging further education students to progress to higher education. The college is also building links with other neighbouring colleges, schools and employers with a view to tapping into training needs and offering students the widest range of options.

One pitfall Mr Davison is determined to avoid is turning out obedient assembly-line workers for the Korean components manufacturers. His vision of education goes way beyond the skills training that you might expect TECs and employers to insist on. He takes as his starting point the students' own enthusiasm to learn, and reckons it offers far more to build on in the long term. "We ask out customers what sort of training they want; we don't tell them what we can provide."

The approach holds a few surprises - a thriving part-time GCSE in archaeology, for example, which makes sense when you consider the area's rich industrial past. Then there are the 30 students following a course in media studies; the college boasts its own radio station which broadcasts for four weeks of the year and has got trainees into BBC Radio Sheffield and Radio Hallam.

Passing education journalists aside, isn't there a dearth of media opportunities in the Dearne Valley? Mr Davison shrugs his shoulders. "Yes, I suppose they are wannabes. Some might get jobs in the media, I dare say. But they have skill and ambition."

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