Learn in the community

13th October 2000 at 01:00
"That first time my daughter said - Mum, can you help me with the computer? What a feeling!" Jan Doughty chuckles her delight.

She used to be terrified of computers, fearful of pressing the wrong button and then seeing the entire screen go blank. "I kept hearing my daughter saying - Grandad, I need such and such a program. And I didn't know what they were talking about!" Doughty now knows enough to be a qualified IT tutor, teaching children and adult trainees at a Community Development Centre located in All Saints Primary, her neighbourhood school at Cockermouth in Cumbria. There are 20 networked computers, video-conferencing equipment and an interactive smartboard. The room is light and airy and the adjacent corridor is colourfully decorated with children's work. Everywhere is bright and fresh and there is certainly no need for a "Welcome" sign.

There are more than 70 such centres scattered throughout Cumbria and most are based in primary schools. The location, size and comfort of primary schools was a deciding factor - comprehensives and colleges seem too large and forbidding.

The Community Development Centres (CDCs) were set up by Cumbria Credits, a pioneering regeneration programme aimed at getting adults into work and back to work and looking at ways to improve and revitalise local facilities. Funding in excess of pound;20 million comes from European and regional sources.

Confidence is a major factor for anyone trying to get back into work and computers can terrify. Training staff at the CDCs quote many, many instances of adult students saying: "I would never ever have thought of applying for that job if I hadn't been here!" It is a difficult job market in Cumbria. There are estates as deprived as any in the big cities, even though the surrounding landscape is breathtaking. The heavy industries, such as coal and ship building, have gone. The arrival of British Nuclear Fuels brought some employment and a huge image problem in its wake. Finding educational facilties in such a remote region, and getting to them, can be difficult. Local companies send their staff to the development centres to further their IT training.

Some students at the centres have recently completed a new distance-learning course titled "Teamworking in Cyberspace". Organised by the Open University and Cumbria Credits the course is intended to act as a bridgehead to higher education qualifications and it will carry a recognised qualification in the near future.

Groups were formed with members drawn from the Community Development Centres at Cockermouh, Wigton and Seascale. They chose their own research subjects, such as planning a wine-tasting journey through Europe, and they communicated through email and chat lines. A 10-week time limit focused people's thinking and decision making so that no one person dominated. It was a collective effort.

The Teamworking course is to continue with audio and video-conferencing included. Many students who were new to email found the ambivalence of email communication quite difficult to handle. Body language and facial expressions, they discovered, add so much more to the printed word.

When a Community Development Centre is set up, two teachers run it. The teachers are given training, comprising eight days spread over two terms with plenty of assignments. They must be able to deliver an ACR Diploma in IT course for the local community. Training for NVQ courses comes next and at the same time the teachertrainers must choose at least one or more community members who could have the skills to be trained as a tutor.

Financial support is for four years. Towards the end of the four years the centre must have a three-year business plan because it then becomes economically self-sufficient. The benefits to the primary schools are self evident - access to wonderful equipment, which is provided free, and staff trained way beyond normal expectations.

"How the CDCs function is up to them," says Barbara McCarron of JBM Education, the training company behind the Credits project. "No two centres will be exactly alike. Management is eventually delegated to members of the community. They will identify their community needs and hopefully meet them. There are many different spin-offs."

The trainees talk about having confidence as if some mighty fortress door has been kicked open for them and they are now as good as anyone. If they had been left alone many would have had a largely unfulfilled future in a forgotten corner of the country.

Consider the story of Pam Elliot from Egremont. Pregnant at 15 and left school at 16 with no qualifications. She found out about an IT course at her children's school, she enrolled and then one course and qualification lead to another and another. Now Pam is a training and development officer responsible for delivering IT training to teachers at the Community Development Centres.

"To be honest I would still have been at home doing nothing", says Pam. "It really has made all the difference to my life".

Kevin Berry is a freelance writer


Cumbria Credits


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