Log on to a new life

19th May 2006 at 01:00
Learning how to use a computer not only opens up a whole new world for some, it can be the route to confidence and a career.

Sam Hurley is trying to send an email. She's standing holding a laptop under a green and white gazebo in her garden. Party balloons hang from the canvas roof and two-year-old Taylor bounces beside her on his birthday trampoline.

"It's much better than in the house. I usually get three bars out here," she says, referring to signal strength, not booze.

Sam does not let internet connection problems bother her. She's a 33-year-old single mother who suffers from stress and anxiety attacks, but learning how to use a computer has become the route to a new life - thanks to the New Horizons programme run by Cambridge Housing Society.

"We do more than build houses," says Andrew Church, the CHS's community investment manager. "Our business is building communities. We're trying to reach hard-to-reach groups. We house them so we are the natural channel.

But you need a carrot to establish a relationship."

For Sam and 60 other CHS residents the carrot is a computer. Whenever anyone moves into one of the society's 1,800 homes scattered across Cambridgeshire they are offered help with money, basic skills and computing. The IT training includes the loan of a free laptop and, crucially, tuition at home from Sarah Derrick, the society's IT training adviser.

Sarah has been working with Sam for about a year. She visits her house in Cambourne at least once a month and is also available for advice via the phone or email. Sam has progressed from a beginner's IT course to level 1 of the nationally recognised European computer driving licence. She hopes to get a job in sport, possibly as a physiotherapist.

Sam is a CHS success story. And she's not the only one. For Sarah, all her clients have something to celebrate. "Just agreeing to have a laptop in their house is progress for some," she says.

Many residents are battling drug, alcohol and mental health problems. "I've set one person the task of getting out of bed a little earlier two days a week just to turn the machine on. That's all, but if they manage that, it's an achievement."

Sarah's teaching is about as personalised as you can get. "If you watch me you may not realise it's teaching. Sometimes it is just sitting and listening because they've had a horrific week. Perhaps we'll turn the laptop on for five minutes to take their mind off their problems and so they feel they have achieved something."

Sarah is adept at using the laptop to open doors and minds. "It's not just about education, it's about helping them with their whole lives."

If a client is depressed about debt, they might do a spreadsheet to help them budget. If someone wants to apply for a job the computer can be used to create an impressive CV. One woman produced a document with pictures to send to friends. She gained so much confidence, says Sarah, that she's now doing a course she would never have done before.

Down the road from Sam Hurley lives Mike Keen. In the corner of his living room, surrounded by tropical fish tanks and model motorbikes, sits his computer. Mike, who is in his 40s, left school with no qualifications. When Sarah met him, he was depressed by his lack of a job and by short-term memory problems caused by a motorbike accident. He didn't need a laptop, but he did need Sarah. She started teaching him in a flat in Cambourne with two others. "I liked the home feel," he says. "They put me at ease and I knuckled down and even helped someone else."

Now Mike works at home with Sarah. He's done five of the seven computer driving licence modules.

The one-to-one teaching works, says Sarah. "People stay with us, we don't suffer the usual high drop-out rate. They gain skills - in literacy, IT, numeracy or finance - but the biggest thing is that they suddenly think, 'I can make a difference here, I can change the way my life runs'."

Unfortunately, not everyone sees it like that. During a recent inspection, the inspector refused to grade Sarah. He said her teaching was superb, but he wanted to see more. Her clients, he said, should be in college.

Unfortunately, as Sarah points out, they won't go. (Though many do after working with the CHS.)

"What we are trying to do runs contrary to the regulatory environment," says Andrew Church. "It's not helping us do what we want to do, and what people want to do, so we have to produce loads of paperwork proving we are effective."

Mike Keen can prove it with one story. "I've always wanted to do motorbike maintenance, but I'd no qualifications and they told me I'd have to pay for the course. So that went out the window, and it's been out the window for years -until the computer course. Sarah came to my house and saw my model bikes and then I started asking questions about courses... " And now he's saving up to go to college.

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