One of this year's Beacon award winners proves how a network of agencies can support the most vulnerable adults
Four years ago, 31-year-old Hayley Dryden could barely read or write. As a child of Travellers, she wandered Ireland and the West Country, rarely entering a school and hating it when she did.
After starting a family, she settled in Nottingham, but soon lost her home and job. Her eldest son had learning difficulties and she was caring for a brother who had mental health problems. "I could not help the kids with their reading and writing and felt ashamed," said the now 35-year-old single mother-of-three. On anti-depressants, life for Hayley could not have been worse.
Then a remarkable change of fortune came when, at a loose end, she did voluntary work at her son's school in Derbyshire. It triggered a course of events that not only taught her at breathtaking speed to read and write but will take her to university for a degree in nursing next year.
Little did Hayley realise that other people connected with the school would spot her learning difficulties and needs. When she volunteered, she encountered a support network that has helped more than 500 people like her.
She was a pathfinder for an initiative that led in 2003 to the creation of LAVEC (Learning in Amber Valley and Erewash Communities). It is an alliance of six agencies for education, housing, health, welfare and voluntary support, geared up to tackle multiple problems facing socially-excluded adults. The group, centred round South East Derbyshire college, takes on the toughest of challenges in a blighted region. Its clients suffer mental ill-health, disability, homelessness and drug and alcohol abuse. Many are lone parents, most have no qualifications and eight in 10 are unemployed.
The secret of success for LAVEC comes from "joined-up government, joined-up funding", says Sue Pilbeam, community outreach manager. "When a homeless person is spotted or seeks help, a support or housing manager will try to find what else they need - financial help, education."
Education presents the toughest challenge since most clients associate school with personal failure, she says. "There were informal links between the colleges and voluntary groups for years. We knew we could not work in isolation, but organisation costs money."
Money eventually came from the European Social Fund, topped up with contributions from partners in the alliance, including Rathbone and the Foyer Trust.
This allowed LAVEC to train staff, such as support worker Kelly Gascoigne.
"My role is to bring training into it, to see if we can get (potential students) on to courses like food hygiene, first aid and IT," she said.
Tony Blair and his ministers talk constantly of the need for joined-up government, but South East Derbyshire college is so far ahead of the game, it has won itself and the LAVEC alliance the 2005 TESAoC Beacon award for widening participation.
However, some senior managers worry that they may be too far ahead. If the Government's new funding priorities were taken literally, the scheme would close tomorrow. Continued success depends on Learning and Skills Council cash for courses outside the Government's skills priorities.
Jackie Daiken, head of workforce and community development, says pressure is on LAVEC to change. "Provision we are trying to offer is small-group with a lot of distance learning, short courses and one-to-one tutorials. If you are doing longer courses, you have to look again at the small size of classes. But, if you don't do that, you won't get the funding."
Most of the students step tentatively into the learning arena. They start with things like simple manicure and nail art, the courses disparaged by Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, who attacked colleges for failing to retrieve Pounds 100 million in lost and waived fees.
When LAVEC students, including Hayley, spoke to FE Focus, they all insisted that without the short-course flexibility and access to non-skills courses they would never have gone to college.
Success rates are impressive. From taster and first-steps learning, almost half the students have gained nationally-recognised qualifications, more than a third have gone on to jobs or further study and many - with families and unable to work - study part- time or do voluntary work.
Whether the success continues will depend on the ability or willingness of the local LSC to interpret government spending policies as flexibly as possible.
Hayley Dryden says: "I found the thought of college daunting and yet I ended up on an access course doing psychology, English, biology and maths.
Without the opportunities that got me to college, I would still be stuck at home eating depression tablets."