Harvey McGavin selects highlights from the 32 seminars being held during the conference
TWO schemes at opposite ends of the country but with a common cause are turning the rhetoric about inclusive learning into results.
The Youth Project may not be the most imaginative title for what East Durham Community College is doing but it is in keeping with their no-nonsense approach to enlisting disenchanted school-leavers.
Unemployment was a big problem in the east of County Durham, made worse by the closure of the area's last colliery at Easington in 1993.
The project began 18 months ago in response to research carried out by Durham University showing that some 450 young people who left school each year failed to find a job or take up further training or education. The college decided to try to nip this trend in the bud. Thirty youngsters in their final two years at seven local schools - identified as being at risk of leaving with little or nothing in the way of qualifications - were invited to form the first cohort of the Youth Project.
The project gives a taste of further education - a choice of up to four vocational subjects studied over two or three days each week - but is careful to avoid authoritarian overtones.
The college employed two youth workers rather than lecturers to run the project and gave participants their own common room. Only one student has dropped out and of those that remain - among them once persistent truants, teenage mothers, and teenagers with behavioural problems - there have been notable successes.
One boy, a former serial car thief, is now enrolled on a performing arts course and starring in the college Christmas show. College principal Ian Prescott said that the project aimed to provide an alternative to the "bus shelter culture" of teenagers hanging around on the streets with nothing to do.
He said: "Employing youth workers rather than lecturers has proved a key factor in retaining the students. We have kids who hardly ever attended school and were kicked out who are now achieving advanced GNVQs.
"Some of the staff were very reluctant at first - there was a bit of opposition from lecturers who thought they might have an adverse effect on other students. But they have found them the most rewarding and satisfying. If we are going to widen participation then we can't ignore specific groups and this was a group we were ignoring."
Meanwhile, at the other end of the country, the tourist brochures call it the Garden of England but not everything is rosy in the county of Kent. The Cray Valley is not as notorious as some of the UK's inner cities but it suffers some of the same problems.
The Ramsden and Hearn's Rise estate are among the top 1.5 per cent of deprived areas in the country, with a high proportion of single-parent families and ex-offenders. Both suffer high youth unemployment and health problems.
But the Crays, as they are known, have become a focus for the activities of nearby Orpington College which is making inroads into these often overlooked estates with a four-stage programme to help people return to learn.
Initially, the college invites parents of primary children to come in to the school for some basic skills classes. The second stage is to drop in at a specially adapted council flat for IT sessions, then attend more formal classes at the college's neighbourhood Midfield centre - officially being opened this week by Jeremy Beadle - before finally starting a course at the college's main site.
But the scheme is not an enrolment drive in disguise, insists Orpington's principal John Parnham. "It's a gradual introduction to education designed to conquer their fears. They can bypass stages along the way if they want to but they need to take time to get back into education - many of them will not have had a very successful experience of school."
Around 200 parents have "gone back to school" to brush up their basic skills since the scheme began two years ago. The local education authority, health visitors and social workers have all helped to spread the word among their clients and John Parnham is convinced that this collaborative approach ("there were about 20 different agencies at the last count") and on-the-doorstep delivery are the keys to attracting new learners.
"It's about where you deliver the service and how you deliver it," he says. "If we had said all this stuff was in the college we wouldn't have got a fraction of the numbers."