College? We wouldn't have come here if we had known

3rd November 2000 at 00:00
Not everyone thinks positively about FE for training, but the really often dispels the image. Selling lessons to industry has become a huge growth area. Martin Whittaker reports.

The Royal Forest of Dean College has just won a bid to run the area's new online learning centre. But when it opens in February it will not be at the college's campus, nor will it be in the local high street. The centre will be on a 67-acre business park.

Xerox is the area's biggest employer, with 3,000 staff. A whole floor of one of its buildings in Mitcheldean will be transformed into the learning centre for the Forest of Dean. The aim isn't just to cater for the skills needs of Xerox. This will be the area's new Learndirect centre serving the needs of the University for Industry.

Last month, we reported on how the Learning and Skills Act has been anticipated in the West Midlands, a relatively prosperous area with a highly-skilled workforce where a productive partnership has been formed between Dudley College and Rover, the car manufacturer. By contrast, the Forest of Dean is an often neglected corner of the otherwise affluent county of Gloucestershire. Out on a limb, and divided from the rest of the county by the River Severn, the beauty of its landscape tends to mask deprivation in its towns.

But why site the learning centre on a business park? Why not in the nearby towns of Coleford or Cinderford?

"Everybody knows Xerox," says Steve Astington, the college's business unit manager. "It's the big local employer. And there are lots of other companies on this business park - it's very well placed."

The new centre builds on a long-standing partnership between the college and Xerox. For the past five years, the college has offered the company training through its Skills For Life centre on the Xerox business park, which started as a basic skills project and won a Beacon Award last year.

Important lessons have been learned along the way, such as the need not to rely on one single business customer, says Steve Astington. "I think we've tried to be honest about what we can do and what we can't. Over time, Xerox's department dealing with training has downsized somewhat, and we've been asked to take on more of that work for them.

"But businesses are businesses, and contracts come and go. It's a totally different culture. My background is in aerospace but I've been in education a long time. I think it dulls your senses rather. In the last hree years I've become a lot more streetwise - learned a lot of lessons."

He says those lessons will shape the new learning centre and how it operates. The college tries to employ training staff from industry. "We're not a very big unit - just myself and two other part-time staff. The rest are people we pull in who have jobs outside. We get them in because of their expertise, but it's quite a hard act to manage."

The new centre will be open to all, but Steve Astington hopes it will be attractive to small businesses because of its location.

"One of the strengths of this is the training schemes that Xerox has put together for its employees. It may be that small businesses can tap into that. It's a totally different environment, and that's what we like about it. People from other companies come here and they're impressed.

"We did some computer-aided design training for a company a few weeks ago. We were talking over lunch and I said something about the college. They said 'college?' I replied 'Yes, we're part of Royal Forest of Dean College.' They said: 'We wouldn't have come to you if we'd known you were a college- we had a bad experience with somebody in the past'."

Robin Fyffe, Xerox's resources manager, says the company's past attempts at open learning had not been successful, but collaboration with the college filled that gap.

"People found it difficult not having access to tutorial support. But with the Skill for Life centre, we had a completely new group of people - it was really well used.

"It was non-threatening: the people you were sitting next to were people you bump into on the shop floor. It's easier to walk a few hundred yards on our site to a training facility and learn with your colleagues than to drive to a college miles down the road, probably in the evening."

Gill Young, the college's principal, says having a foot in the camp of a big local employer like Xerox puts the college in a good position of strength ahead of the Learning and Skills Council to be launched next April. "It's given us a very visible presence in a major manufacturing company in the Forest of Dean," she says.

"It also means that if we are offering courses, they come into an environment with which they are familiar, rather than bringing them into the college environment. Although I think it's perfectly nice and attractive and supportive, it's not a familiar environment for people in business and employment."

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