Big deals on four wheels

20th January 2006 at 00:00
Funding is tight. You hardly need to sneak a look at the principals'

website to see it's one of the biggest topics of conversation among those who have to make ends meet. With expansion targets high and funding low, we are expected to reach out and extract more money from the community and local business. So roll out the e-bus. When business can't get to us, we will go to business.

The college has bought a bus and converted it to a mobile IT classroom. It will visit the outposts and relieve weary tutors while their students rush outside to try out the new facility. Maybe we should put "Mafeking" on the destination board.

On the first outing, all the chairs rolled round as the bus turned the corners. The fitters had forgotten to screw them down. The bus returned to the workshop. As soon as they had been secured with seat-belts, it set off again for the shopping centre. The bus made it this time, but the driver was upset by something unhelpful that the traffic warden said to him.

A week later, the bus had parked in a quiet spot near the library when two youths boarded and offered to relieve the driver of all the equipment.

Fortunately, all the hardware was screwed down.

Parking is a problem. If you can't find an area that is absolutely flat, the students slide to one side. Space is also an issue. With minimum class sizes of 15 and a bus with eight workstations, the only way to square the circle is to sit students on each other's laps. Should we have got a double-decker?

The next port of call was a small engineering works, where we were hoping to run a work-based IT course. Our bus has a generator but it soon runs down, so the driver tries to get as close as possible to the offices to run out a cable and tap their electricity. Luckily, the cable reached.

Unluckily, it blew the mains and the whole office went out.

My contribution to outreach is in a community centre where I'm doing basic skills with parents. Mary had missed classes for a few weeks. I knew she had been looking after a grandson who had measles, but I thought I should give her a ring. Mary explained she had missed the later classes because her daughter caught measles too - it was going round the class at the primary school. I didn't quite follow... It turned out that Mary's younger daughter and her grandson are in the same class at primary school, having been born just a few weeks apart.

"My older daughter and I went to ante-natal together," Mary told me proudly. "And I was her birthing partner." No wonder I sometimes lose the plot.

I have to persuade at least some of these parents to take a basic skills qualification because I have targets to meet. I book the e-bus so we can use the test facilities on board. But taking a test is the last thing most of the parents will agree to. I'll have to be devious.

I get them on board - literally - by telling them we can have a go on the computers. Then I ask them if they'd like to try a quiz.

"It's a bit like the ones in women's magazines," I tell them. "You know the sort. You just read the questions and click on an answer, then add up your score and it tells you what kind of lover you are. Only in this case it tells you how good you are at literacy."

They look a bit suspicious, but they decide they might as well have a go.

Before they know where they are, I've got a few of them signing up for a live test - or quiz, if you prefer. You see, it's just a question of how you sell it.

Sometimes, in an attempt to convince students of the value of lifelong learning, I try to lead by example, and I must have mentioned to the parents' group that I was signing up for a course on dyslexia. That prompted one of the dads to bring me a crumpled piece of paper with about 15 wobbly letters printed on it. "This is my son's writing" he tells me.

"He says it's a story about a dinosaur and there's not one proper word in it. Is he dyslexic, do you think?"

I reassure him that this is a normal development for a five-year-old and that teachers call it "emergent writing".

He can be proud of his son's progress because, even though he hasn't quite got it together yet, he has reached an important stage.

Dad looks relieved. "Well, I don't want him to end up on one of your courses, do I?" he says.

Gill Moore is a basic skills lecturer

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