A ride on the learning wheel
Roll-up, roll-up. A new fairground attraction has just opened on a playing field in Birmingham. Sited between the walzers and the dodgems, from the outside it looks like another fun-fair ride. It has "The Discovery Zone" in bright flashing letters across its top.
But step inside ladies and gentlemen, and you're in a brand-new state-of-the-art learning centre - thanks to a collaboration between a fun fair and a further education college.
South Birmingham College and Robert Wilkinson's Fun-fair have teamed up to build this new pound;270,000 mobile centre, backed by the Department for Education and Employment and Learndirect.
This summer it will tour Birmingham with the fair, coaxing would-be learners inside and signing them up on courses.
And over the winter months, when the fair went into hibernation, the centre was open to fairground families who have slipped through the education and training net.
The project has just won a pound;25,000 BT Lifelong Learning award, providing it with laptop computers to help it expand into travelling communities. It has also had a pound;75,000 grant from the Basic Skills Agency to run family learning weekend for fairground folk.
Karen Halliday, the project's co-ordinator, said:"It's a great way of learning for them. It means they're not just shoved into schools and colleges.
"They don't like being in one place, so learning on the move is excellent."
The Discovery Zone was the brainchild of local showman Robert Wilkinson who wanted to give something back to the people of Birmingham after the city gave him his big break and allowed him to set up his first fair.
He approached South Birmingham College and it is paid for by the college, DFEE and Learndirect.
Wilkinson is a 44-year-old labour councillor who describes himself as an old-fashioned socialist. He is proud that his fair attracts people on low incomes - he charges just 50p a ride, compared with competitors which charge up to pound;1.50.
"I always have people helping me on the fair, and you get young teenagers. Sometimes they turn up again and again and you get to know them," he says.
"I have seen good kids get into thieving and drugs, because it's very difficult to get out of some of these areas. The hope is that kids are going to come in here and if they take an interest in some of these courses, it could change their lives."
Fun-fair families also miss out on education and trainin. Children only go to school in the winter months, he says. While the fairground was quiet during the wet winter weather, Wilkinson set up The Discovery Zone in the fair's winter quarters at Cannock. In the process he managed to sign up some local barge-dwellers for courses.
South Birmingham College is also setting up courses for fairground workers through the new centre. Subjects will include health and safety, first aid, welding and basic skills.
The Discovery Zone is a formal Learndirect centre, offering a range of courses. It was purpose-built by a company that specialises in making fairground caravans.
Like other fairground rides, the 44-foot trailer folds up for travelling between sites and is pulled by its own truck. Once on-site it turns into a big air-conditioned room with 12 flat-screen computers, separate seating areas, and living space for staff.
It can operate anywhere - it has its own generator. And a partnership between the college and mobile phone giant Orange has given it the latest wireless Internet technology, meaning no need for telephone lines.
Mike Hopkins, assistant principal at South Birmingham College, says: "If you are trying to attract people in who wouldn't normally access education and training, what better way to do it than to make it look like it's not education and training?
"People are there in the fair. They're relaxed and they will simply walk into what looks like a fairground ride. Kids drag their parents in and they're often scared to death of computers, whereas the kids use them every day in school. Here, those parents can just sit down with college staff to support them."
He admits South Birmingham College has taken a risk. It has to meet the running costs - the annual bill for the unit's Internet access is around pound;30,000. A new tyre for the trailer. alone costs pound;750.
"We spend all our time taking risks," said Hopkins. "But if you don't risk, you don't do anything at all. There's no such thing as staying still, is there?" Another concern is security. Surely a pound;250,000 fairground vehicle with state-of-the-art computer equipment parked in a field is a sitting target for thieves?
Showman Robert Wilkinson is not unduly worried. As well as the unit having its own alarm system, he has two Alsatians in his caravan nearby. And, he says, The Discovery Zone has added security - the fearsome reputation of fairground workers.
"It's a really safe environment. There is this opinion of fairground people that makes them a bit wary to come back at night to do any damage."