Working men's clubs are throwing off their image as bastions of the cloth-capped drinking classes. Sure, you can still pop down for a pint, but now you can also take computing courses. Oh, and women are welcome, too. Simon Beckett reports.
In the games room of the Wadsley Bridge working men's club in Sheffield, the click of snooker balls mingles with the sound of pints being pulled in an atmosphere thick with cigarette smoke. Upstairs, a group of club members are grappling with a rather less traditional club pastime.
It's Monday evening, and the first of this week's IT classes is getting under way. Opened in March in the constituency of then Education Secretary David Blunkett, Wadsley Bridge is the first - and, so far, only - working men's club in Britain to function as an official IT college. Funded by the DfES and the Lottery Commission, the pound;55,000 centre is a three-way partnership between the club, Sheffield College, and the Sheffield Partnership for Education and Lifelong Learning - North East ( Spell-ne). The centre, which has 12 PCs, provides club members - including women - with free Open College Network-accredited courses in subjects such as basic computing and the internet - and, of course, the chance to finish off with a pint and a game of snooker or bingo afterwards.
"If you're going to get education to people, why not try it in pubs and clubs?" asks Chris Massarella, development manager at Spell. "So many of these places have the facilities not only to set up educational courses, but to promote them to a captive audience."
With the original Georgian building (formerly a doctor's house) now almost obscured by more recent extensions, Wadsley Bridge has been a working men's club since 1927. For many of its 4,000 members, nowadays, though, the phrase "working men" has a bitter ring, as unemployment remains high - 6.3 per cent compared with 3.3 per cent nationally - after the decimation of Sheffield's traditional steel and engineering industries in the Seventies and Eighties.
"Many of the members have been out of education for years, and many had bad experiences when they were in it," says Mr Massarella. "So as far as encouraging them to do courses in the traditional places of learning, such as colleges or schools, they just will not do it. They want the familiarity and comfort of an environment they're used to."
Mr Massarella, a WMC member for 20 years (although only recently at Wadsley Bridge), hit on the idea of combining the club's social environment with an educational one two years ago. As part of his remit with Spell-ne to work with men in the community, he set up laptop classes in two working men's clubs in the area. The popularity of the courses, and their achievement of an 80 per cent pass rate (50 per cent is more usual in a community setting), convinced him there was scope for a more ambitious project.
So, in February last year, Spell put forward a bid to the DfES and the Lottery Commission under the Government's scheme to fund 1,000 UK online centres. Less than 18 months later, four Open College Network-accredited courses are being run from what was once a first-floor stockroom at Wadsley Bridge WMC - two in IT for beginners, one in internet access and one in desktop publishing.
The centre's two freelance tutors, who deliver the courses on behalf of Sheffield College, are qualified to teach up to OCN level 3 (equivalent to A-level). But as most users have had no previous experience with computers, this first term's courses have all been at entry level.
"When we first started, pupils were worried that the mouse was an animal that might bite them," says Raj Singh, who teaches IT and the internet classes. "But now they're using it, using commands, typing, they're really confident."
The term-long courses consist of one, two-hour class each week, with an extra hour's free time afterwards for eager students to hone their skills. Around 50 club members have already signed up. "They've turned this club around in the past 12 months," says Brian Robinson, a 58-year-old ex-machinist now on incapacity benefit. Although he doesn't expect the IT course he's enrolled in to lead to employment, he's enjoying the opportunity to get to grips with what had once been an alien technology. "I'd never touched a keyboard until I came here. It's a great idea. If clubs don't keep up with the times they'll die out."
At the moment the classes are all held in the evening. But with the recent appointment of an education administrator, further classes - and perhaps different courses - are planned for the afternoons. The club also hopes to encourage a younger age group (half the present users are over 45) by running family sessions. "The whole idea of the centre is that it's user and demand-led," says Mr Massarella. "We consult closely with members about what kind of courses they'd like."
Current funding will keep the centre running for three years, after which the aim is for self-sufficiency. While it is still early days, the centre's success has encouraged Spell to put in a bid for a second centre at another working men's club in the city, and there is hope that others will follow. In Sheffield alone, 200,000 people belong to working men's clubs and Mr Massarella believes the clubs are the biggest community groups in Britain. "To a large extent, they're the easiest to access," he claims. "If any community group can support a centre like this, a working men's club can."