Eight-year-olds playing computer games are not common in colleges. "I come down here every day to play Minecraft," Matthew explains in the well- equipped computer room at John Wheatley College in Easterhouse, Glasgow. "Then I print off what I've done and take it home to show my mum and dad."
It's a lovely illustration of the seamlessness between college and community that exists here, explains Craig Green, head of creative technologies. "When I joined John Wheatley, there had been a lot of discussion about mergers between further education colleges. The view of the board here was that it wouldn't be in the interests of the people it served to merge with another college. Were it to merge with anyone, they would want to merge with the local community.
"I thought that was a beautiful vision. You can't achieve it completely. It's not exactly quantifiable. But I do know what it means."
In practice, it meant that Green and his colleagues took the initiative to create an extended learning network in one of the most deprived areas of the country. "The Glasgow East Learning Network now has 23 learning centres, run by neighbourhood groups," he says. "They are all connected to the college network and, through that, to the internet. We provide the machines, the network connections, storage, email accounts, security services and tutors from our Wider Access programme."
The aim of these efforts is to combat digital exclusion - the vicious circle that sees online access, and the opportunities it offers, lowest in precisely those areas of deprivation that need them most. "An important point of principle is that you get the same opportunities for learning and qualifications in the neighbourhood as you do on campus," Green says.
Personal choice and democracy are prominent, he says. "Unlike a traditional model, in which we know what's good for you, the neighbourhood group running each centre makes a request on behalf of its learners for tutor services from the college."
It's a learning model that is not always easily understood. "At one point, an auditor was struggling to grasp what we do. `It sounds as if people just walk in off the street, whenever they want to,' he told us. But that is what flexible learning can look like."
The majority of requests from centres are for information and communications technology courses, Green says, and the reasons are obvious. "We do run other courses, such as first aid and food hygiene. But digital skills can do so much for an individual. They improve your employability, your ability to get good deals, your social connections, your confidence."
There is also the prospect of moving easily from flexible learning to full- or part-time college study, a step made easier by certification. "For many people, there was a fear factor at first to the whole idea of being tested," Green says. "So we developed college certification at an early level, benchmarked against SCQF (Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework) levels. That showed people they could learn and undertake practical activities to a required standard. It gives them the encouragement to move on to more formal certification."
Fun but fruitful
Support for transitions is a key concept in all this - an idea that also lies at the heart of the programme for younger learners run by the Glasgow East Learning Network. "To the best of my knowledge, this is unique in further education in Britain," Green says.
Modelled on the flexible learning of the Wider Access programme, Youth Access attracts school-age children into the centres, to have fun while learning with computers. Youth workers and college staff collaborate to develop individual learning programmes that can include computer game design, social networking, video editing and the creation of comics, music and animations. "All this takes planning, peer assessment and the preparation of a portfolio of evidence, which stands them in good stead later, whether they go on to further education or employment," Green says.
An unexpected outcome of certification for the Wider Access courses was that it also appealed to the younger children, he says. "It can be hard to persuade them to go for certificated courses. But when they see someone they know getting one, they want one, too. So we very deliberately give out the certificates. We don't post them to people."
The secret to success is to generate good feelings about learning in young people. "We build positive relationships with them. Youngsters in deprived areas can get turned off learning while still at school. But this shows that they can develop a positive relationship with a learning provider."
The effectiveness is measurable, Green says. "In the session just ended, 29 per cent of the people enrolled in mainstream full-time courses at John Wheatley College we first encountered on our Youth Access programme.
"Even though they first did a computer-based course, they are coming to college to do hairdressing, construction, sound engineering, catering - the whole range of courses we offer. So we're not just getting them interested in computers; we are creating positive relationships between young people and their local college.
"That's what makes the difference."
Craig Green's seminar at the Scottish Learning Festival, "Community-based Flexible Learning Partnerships: the Glasgow East Learning Network", will take place at 3pm on 25 September. To register for the festival and book a place at selected sessions, go to www.educationscotland.gov.ukslf.
Photo credit: Alamy