Both a defunct school building and a hard-pressed community are getting a second chance in the education system, reports Lucy Ward. At first sight, the venue for the newest education initiative in the booming city of Leeds is less than promising. The East Leeds Family Learning Centre is housed in a Fifties-built glass and concrete former high school, still in reasonable repair but undoubtedly showingits age.
Abandoned last summer after plummeting results forced the city council to ring the final bell on East Leeds High and another nearby school, the building is in need of care and attention and the playing fields are overgrown.
But behind the peeling paintwork, the classrooms are buzzing with an energy that has probably not been felt in this building for some time. The schoolboys may have gone, but in their place are 1,500 new students enrolled on more than 100 courses in a pioneering scheme to put learning on the doorsteps of a community traditionally isolated from many educational opportunities.
The transformation of the vacant building has come about through the combined efforts of Leeds City Council and two further education colleges, supported by local schools, the training and enterprise council and business.
Seacroft, the site of the learning centre, is badly in need of new opportunities. With unemployment figures at least three times the Leeds average of 8 per cent, it has missed out on the jobs-and-profits boom in the North's new financial capital. Paul Forbes, acting chief of the authority's new training department, admits: "Trickle-down economics has trickled right past this community - that is the reality. We have to offer something more."
Two years ago, the city council launched its family of schools initiative - a scheme linking neighbouring schools to exchange expertise in order to raise standards, especially in reading. It hoped a learning centre for adults within east Leeds - one of the family of schools centres - would conquer traditional wariness of travelling to college and encourage residents to return to learning.
It would also offer 30 one-day-a-week places for 14 and 15-year-olds from the local high school, in line with Sir Ron Dearing's proposals to keep disaffected teenagers within the educational fold.
Thomas Danby College and Airedale Wharfedale, both based two or three bus rides away from the area, saw a chance to win students where they had failed before, with the added incentive of a rent-free site subsidised by the city council. Though working together under the wing of the council may run counter to the post-incorporation competitive spirit, the two institutions in a city crowded with nine colleges cannily recognised the advantages of an alternative approach.
The partners agreed from the start that every course offered at the centre - all part-time at present - would be free to all. Students join the rolls of either institution, but - at the authority's stipulation - are not told which one is running their course. Each college, meanwhile, claims funding for its own students in the normal way.
Besides avoiding representing the new centre merely as a college annexe, the partnership went to considerable lengths to ensure the East Leeds community felt welcome. Displays at shopping centres were backed up with brochures sent to 25,000 homes, and around of Pounds 80,000 of city council cash was spent on security measures to ensure students felt they - and their cars - were safe.
Though many outside the project had remained sceptical, the efforts paid off and logjams in the car park during enrolment week proved the doubters wrong.
The authority and colleges know the real test will be keeping the 1,500 new students on their books, but the numbers are still way beyond their expectations. For Malcolm Walters, head of community education at Thomas Danby, the real success of the project lies in the fact that 80 per cent of the students enrolled would qualify for waived fees if any were being charged. He says: "That indicates that we are reaching the less well-off, non-traditional students - exactly the group we were targeting."
Staff from the two colleges have worked well together, he insists, though figures show the vocational courses offered by Thomas Danby have proved more popular than Airedale's leisure-oriented programmes.
The students, happy to turn a blind eye to tired decor when Pounds 60, 000 of state-of-the-art computers are on offer, are full of enthusiasm. Judi Steele, 35, a self-confessed "middle-aged female computer nerd", was attracted back to her old school for a computing course after nearly 20 years out of education and now claims she has been "bitten by the learning bug".
Centre manager Chris Peat has grand plans, including full-time courses, more facilities and more employer involvement, but is keen to ensure every step is carefully planned. He says: "We are just a few minutes round the clock at the moment. I am certain we can carry on bringing people into education who were convinced they were out for good."