Look, mum, this is how to do it

14th March 1997 at 00:00
In Cumbria, parents are going back to primary school to learn how to use IT. Jack Kenny on a scheme bringing hope to an area of high unemployment.

When Michelle Culshaw saw an advertisement last year for an information technology course that was free, at a primary school just round the corner from her home, with a free cr che and at a time convenient to her, she knew that the time had come.

Shirley Bowker saw the same course advertised, but it was her husband who put her name forward. Shirley and Michelle both live in Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, both have young children, and both admit that they did not do as well at school as they could have done. Now, a year after seeing the adverts, not only are they proficient at IT but the two womenhave been taken on as resource managers in the primary school where they studied. And they are starting to help teach other people, who, like them, can see that acquiring IT skills is essential. They are also assisting in a substantial way with the IT work in the school; in less than a year they have progressed from absolute beginners to confident instructors.

The school they are working in is Greengate Junior in Barrow-in-Furness, an area dominated by the Vickers plant. The end of the Cold War was good news for most of the world but bad news for Barrow, and the town is having to adjust to a different defence focus; consequently, jobs are not easy to find. Cumbria has been able to get money from the European Social Fund and the Single Regeneration Fund from Government North West, which distributes the SRFmoney, out of which the Community Regeneration Through the Development of IT Skills (CREDITS) scheme has grown. Greengate was chosen, along with three other schools, to pilot the scheme in Cumbria.

The four primary schools in the scheme are given Pounds 100,000 over four years to establish themselves as community development centres. Each school is equipped with 13 multimedia PCs and software with which to run the RSA or NVQ courses for the community. The courses are run for a couple of hours at the end of the school day by teachers from the school. This means that the equipment is available for the use of the school at other times. In addition, the four centres all run an Integrated Learning System (SuccessMaker) which they can use with their pupils; this can set tasks for maths and English and pitch them according to an individual's capabilities.

Why put all of this into a primary school? "Why not?" responds Colin Smith, the head of Greengate. "Most people have pleasant memories of their primary school and we have good relations with most of the parents. People will come into a primary school who would not go into a college or secondary school because they find them too intimidating. We are building confidence, giving people the self-assuredness to see themselves as learners once more." Also, primary teachers do not come across as IT experts. "For people who are just starting, an IT expert is the last thing they want," says John Luck, of Upperby School, Carlisle.

Up the coast near Workington are new wind generators with vast propellers turning in the winds coming off the Irish Sea. On the hill above is Seaton School. Theheadteacher, David Maughan, is encouraged by what he has seen during the first year. "I did worry that the staff who are acting as tutors would be exhausted but they aren't. The courses start at 4.30pm which means that the staff have an hour's break before they start the evening session.

"We have a waiting list of people for the courses and we are taking bookings for next year. I am excited by the possibilities; we have already started to develop links with companies and I can see all kinds of ways of keeping all this going when the funding runs out in four years."

Of the 33 students they have dealt with over the past year only three did not stay the course. The other 30 all got RSAqualifications.

The British Nuclear Fuels plant at Sellafield dominates the mid-coastal region. Just up the road in Egremont is Orgill Junior School. This school initiated most of the developments that are at the heart of the CREDITS scheme and John Barrett of Orgill is one of the pioneering tutors. John developed the RSA courses that have, so far, been used as the basis of the training.

Orgill has been working with the community for a few years and it is the approaches that have been pioneered here that have been used in the other three schools. Pam Elliot was one of the first to do the course at Orgill back in 1992; soon after she gained her first qualification she was taken on by the school in the role of resource manager.

Pam is responsible for the Integrated Learning System network and monitors the pupils' use of the network as well as providing observation notes to teachers and recording pupil data on to a spreadsheet. Pam attended the residential in-service offered to the school on the use of the network and has taken a leading role in providing in-service training for the teachers in the school.

Orgill's headteacher, Owen Lynch, says that he wanted to create professional learners. "The exciting thing about this whole project is that it is about learning for a whole community. We have hardly started. One night the school will be taken over by the people who are doing the NVQ course, the next we will have parents in working alongside their children, the next night we will have people in who want to work with the technology to be creative, to make something."

When you talk to the people who are following the courses you find out why they are there. "There were no computers when I was at school and I need to know," said one parent. "I just want to understand what my children are doing," said another. "When I go back to work I want to have the skills that so far I have missed out on. I might learn skills that will make me more marketable. I have only just found out, at the grand old age of 34, that I can enjoy learning."

There are numerous schemes across the country that aim to develop learning in the community, but there are several factors that make the Cumbria scheme unique. The scheme is local; it is self- renewing; it matches the needs of the individuals with the needs of the schools and the needs of the community; it is about learning not training; it is innovative; it is tailored to the characteristics of each community; it creates a new group of people who can be used to strengthen the work of the school; it is embedded in the locality; it will create a cross-county learning network of 88 centres; it will raise the skills level of the local community through recognised NVQ qualifications; ownership is vested in the community; and eventually it will be staffed by the community.

The good news about the scheme is that it does not cost individual schools any money, and the schools have their resources greatly enhanced. In addition, the schools have total control over the new resources during the school day.

There are particular factors at work in Cumbria, but there are facets of the scheme that would work anywhere. It would, nevertheless, be particularly satisfying if one of the remotest areas of the country had produced a model that could show the way to schools in the rest. There are many more women like Michelle and Shirley living in the United Kingdom.

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