Lifeline in an old post office

2nd June 2006 at 01:00
A learning centre offers hope, says Phil Revell

It used to be the post office for Priors Park; now it has more of the look of an internet cafe. Pensioners Jackie Finlay and Pat Jones come in early once a week. Sisters Donna and Jenny are regulars, but it's Lucy's first day. The community resource attracting them in this disadvantaged bit of the West Country is a learndirect centre.

Lucy Walker is 25. She has unhappy memories of school, but has just signed up for literacy and numeracy. "My friends told me about it and asked me if I wanted to come," she says. "I hated school; I used to bunk off. This doesn't feel like a school. You can come in when you want."

Nikki Morris graduated from learndirect client to employee. "I'm a single parent," she says. "I had been out of work for six years. I started doing IT . When it got busy I helped out, and I was offered a job. It's only part time, but I am enjoying it."

The centre is the result of the kind of partnership that government ministers are so fond of, the sort that is easier to imagine than implement. The company providing the training is Tilad, which runs centres in Derbyshire, the West Midlands and Surrey - as well as Gloucestershire.

The post office was refitted with a grant from the local learning and skills council, but in many ways the original seed for the project came from the local housing society, Severn Vale.

Priors Park is a community with no apparent centre. There was no village here, no pit or factory to provide a focus. The original community seems to have centred on the prefab houses used as a housing stop-gap after the Second World War. Those are long gone, but the estate grew in the 1950s and 1960s as the council used the space outside the town to build low-cost housing.

Today there are 1,000 homes, some private, some rented. There's a primary school and a couple of pubs. Tewkesbury, the nearest town, is a bus ride away. There's not a lot to do and anti-social behaviour registers high as a worry on the tenants' surveys conducted by Severn Vale.

The housing society is redeveloping its 450 properties. Flats and houses are being renovated - or demolished and replaced. "Having improved the quality of the accommodation, we recognised the need to look at the community that people were living in," says Dave Richards, the charity's chief executive. "There was poor access to jobs; there was a need to bring basic skills levels up. These are people who wouldn't travel into town to access the library or the courses at the local college. Then we came across Tilad and learndirect."

Severn Vale had already made a disused shop available to a local community group. Then it expanded that offer, promising to provide a shop, if Tilad would offer courses.

Central to the success of the Priors Park project is its appearance: the centre neither looks like nor behaves like a school or college. "People can come in on their way to the neighbourhood centre upstairs, they can have a cup of coffee here. We are not trying to fill every seat for every hour of the day," says Mr Crawley. The majority pay nothing, because most qualify for free access.

The centre opened two years ago, and has seen 475 learners through its doors. More than 1,200 courses have been taken and 982 completed. Now Steve Crawley has greater ambitions for Priors Park.

"We'd like to work more closely with the community, we'd like to offer more support to kids with their homework; we are aware of the digital divide and that many of these kids don't have access to a PC," he says.

It's too early to tell whether Priors Park has really improved. Few of those 982 completed courses have led to level 2 (GCSE-equivalent) qualifications. But people are using the centre and feeling good about it.

"People come and have a look to see; they come in to have a nose around and then they sign up," says Nikki Morris. "This job is my start back; I'd like to work full time, and as soon as I get my IT skills up to scratch I am going to start applying."

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