A culture of learning is being cultivated in pubs, village halls and supermarket cafes. Sue Jones reports on the man trying to drive up local aspirations
Which comes first, economic regeneration or social renewal? Does industry come in and create demand for skills or do skilled workers draw in industry?
For some impoverished communities, this chicken-and-egg argument is addled from the start. High-paying industries will not invest where skills are poor and people will not invest in learning skills where there is no demand.
Skills minister Ivan Lewis is irritated by what he sees as a false dichotomy. He insists: "The idea that we separate social and economic aspects is nonsense."
He sees education as inseparable from regeneration and says the 2003 skills white paper went a long way in bringing the two together. That paper, "21st century skills, realising our potential", builds on the learning communities' idea through a range of "testbed" experiments.
Strategic planners, such as regional development agencies, already work with labour market information to analyse the broad pattern of skills shortages across their area. And neighbourhood renewal groups work with individuals to encourage returning to learning. But too often the chasm dividing them is so wide that the policies never meet, says Sue Meyer, director of programmes and policy at the National Institute for Adult and Continuing Education, which is working with the testbed communities.
"There's always been a gap between neighbourhoods and the strategy level.
"There are lots of learning communities around, but these testbeds are based on the minister's particular interest in aspiration," she said.
Mr Lewis wants to change the culture in run-down areas. Young people in such areas aspire to a good career but don't expect it to happen, he says.
"They haven't seen people around them take the necessary steps and can't see the route to follow.
"We have debates about how to get the best curriculum, schools, teachers, leaders, but there's very little debate about the customer, the user, the learner, what motivates them, raises their horizons or about how to secure their support and get these adults hooked into learning in a positive way to experience the dignity of self-improvement."
Twenty-eight testbed learning communities are trying out ideas and will report back by 2006. There is no centrally imposed template and all will develop according to local circumstances.
This is what gives them their appeal, says Jane Leffman, development team leader at Wirral Council for Voluntary Service: "What's good about the testbeds is that we were given a free hand."
Testbeds can look for learning opportunities in existing community activities. In campaigning against fly-tipping, for example, Wirral residents also developed their communication skills. "They found they could have a conversation with the local authority or with the BBC and feel confident about it," says Ms Leffman.
Wirral CVS is now recruiting volunteers for training in mentoring and assessing local needs. "People don't actually think learning is for them, so we need peers they can relate to, people in their own communities who can help them to recognise learning they're already doing or put them in the right direction," she says.
Such "learning champions" are becoming a key feature in the battle to improve learning. Volunteers already involved in community activity will be trained to spot people's needs and capitalise on informal learning opportunities.
For Titus Alexander, director of learning communities at the Scarman Trust, a charity supporting small, grass-roots community action for improvement, such opportunities may pop up anywhere. "It's about maximising assets and resources in the community," he says. The trust is working with the testbeds on a training programme for volunteers similar to that for trades union learning reps. "Part of our role is to lever in additional resources, in this case the TUC, and to adapt it for community use with funds from Europe," says Mr Alexander.
Another feature of the testbed communities is the learning co-ordinator.
For links between local initiative and regional strategy to work, there must be partnerships and networks. This must happen both vertically - from government office level to the local community - and horizontally across all the public, private and voluntary sector bodies that might be involved with learning and regeneration.
The Government is committed to supporting level 2 (GCSE-equivalent) courses. But as the Learning and Skills Council is reviewing adult and community learning, there are fears that bite-sized, taster and "leisure" courses might not be funded.
"There must always be a place for adult and community learning within the lifelong learning framework," says Mr Lewis.
"We have to make the case in public policy terms - put lifelong learning at the centre of regeneration, focus on the people, give them the tools to develop themselves."