Social inclusion and active citizenship are at the heart of Angus Council's community education plans, reports Esther Read
To see the future of community education in action, consider an on-going project in the Gallowshade area of Forfar, winner of Grampian TV's Adult Learners Award.
Sheena Reekie, the principal community education officer for Angus, describes how it all began: "We had some concern about the levels of adult literacy in Gallowshade, so we initially linked with the libraries to get feedback. An open day was set up, but this revealed that locals' concerns were much more about a general unhappiness with the area.
"The tenants' reaction was to want to complain to the council but to do that effectively, they realised that they needed more skills and confidence. So a community association was formed. They learned how to work as a group and how to work with other people. They were given a grant to buy a computer, so they developed IT and writing skills.
"In addition to our own worker, councillors and housing department people became involved. The association went on to form a youth group and set up activities for older people. They were given a flat to use as an office. A tenants' association was formed to liaise directly with the housing department and the chairman of the community association stood for the council himself."
In short, Gallowshade is just the sort of approach to lifelong learning, social inclusion and active citizenship that the Government hopes will emerge from its new proposals for community plans, which will include "community learning plans".
These are to be devised from the bottom up, while community educators take on a new functional role as a kind of broker for all the other agencies involved, sharing with them the community educator's skills in supporting personal development, building community capacity and drawing together those resources that can support community learning.
But if it's already happening in Gallowshade, what's so different about the new approach? "What's different," says Sandy Watson, chief executive of Angus council, "is that we now have a systematic, managed approach to community learning."
Angus has already begun drawing up a strategy for the community learning plan and is the first council to have progressed this far.
"We began by gathering together a whole range of people, not only from education but also from our recreation and cultural services departments, housing, social work, economic development and personnel," Watson says. "We also invited representatives from the Angus Association of Voluntary Organisations, the University of Abertay, Angus College, Tayside Health Board, Tayside Careers Ltd and Scottish Enterprise Tayside.
"The group has met for two workshop sessions so far, during which they have developed a vision statement, clarified their separate and joint roles, considered the networks currently available, carried out a mapping needs exercise and agreed ways forward.
"These include plans for the various parties to test the strategic framework against the needs articulated by the communities, interest groups and individuals with whom they are involved - the 'bottom-up' bit. The wider the range of agencies involved, the more comprehensive the feedback."
The new partnership calls for a major change of attitudes and practice by all those involved, but Jim Anderson, Angus's director of education, views the need to change positively: "The strategy allows providers to step back and prioritise. It's easy to be sucked into a large number of different areas but the process means we'll be better informed by our customers and enabled to make the best use of what are still very limited resources."
The workshops themselves have sparked off ideas for innovative ways of working with careers guidance, for example, seeing yet more ways to reach the disadvantaged and disaffected.
John Burt, the principal of Angus College, is also enthusiastic. "Just one of the areas where we would certainly find the new approach helpful is with some late-entrant students who are more dysfunctional than previously. This throws up challenges for our staff, and a partnership with community educators who could be involved in our introductory programme would be enormously beneficial."
All this raises the need for more training, for which the Government has made money available through the Excellence Fund. Sandy Watson chairs the national task group that is putting together a training programme that will allow community education to deliver.
He is optimistic, even at this early stage: "If we get this working properly, we should find that the strategy informs the plans. But, much more importantly, the plans will also inform the strategy. It's an on-going process which will allow us to identify needs more accurately and ensure that they fit with best value requirements."