An Edinburgh-based group that has been providing an informal lifelong learning programme for 13 years may be forced to close when it loses some of its funding later this year. Raymond Ross reports on its work
We pick up where the schools fail," says Pru Pullen, co-ordinator of 2nd Chance to Learn. "Our job is to help people change, help them go where they want to."
The organisation 2nd Chance to Learn was set up in Edinburgh in 1985 as part of the charitable Edinburgh University Settlement to reach the parts of society that formal education was failing to reach. Besides teaching key communication skills and numeracy, its programme aims to instil confidence in people and provide opportunities for study as a route back into formal education or employment.
"If vulnerable groups are not to be excluded from society and the workplace, it is essential that informal learning opportunities exist that enable people to attain basic skills, self-esteem and certification to take the next step into active participation and employment," says Pru Pullen.
Most 2nd Chance to Learn students come from an unskilled, often unemployed, background, and from families where education is not valued or regarded as a way into employment. Eighty per cent of the students have no qualifications, 85 per cent live in areas of urban deprivation, 40 per cent are single parents, 25 per cent are unemployed males and 12 per cent are disabled.
Since 1985, 1,671 students have attended the programme, of whom 80 per cent have progressed to further education. "We are genuinely providing a hand-up, not a hand-out," says Pru Pullen. "There's a lot of talk about lifelong learning, but if you don't have the informal, first-step opportunity of the kind we provide, then lifelong learning will only be for the few."
Classes are informal and community-based and, says Pru Pullen, the centre gives more support than most colleges. "We're much more flexible," she says. "A lot of our students have problems that have to be talked through, so that they don't lose out on classes. And I think we're pretty unique in providing all-day free child care.
"We concentrate on written and oral communication skills, planning essays and letters and developing verbal expression. The key is to instil skills and also the confidence to use them."
Pru Pullen seems slightly defensive about the work 2nd Chance to Learn does, and with good reason. The organisation is funded through the City of Edinburgh's Urban Aid Programme, which ends in March of this year. It has European funding for another year, but this will need to be matched by core funding if the programme is to continue.
"We hope to get on to the local authority education budget, but if we don't, we'll collapse. We're a proven service over 13 years, we shouldn't be scrabbling around for money. We take over 200 students a year, most of whom are on benefit, and most of them come to us through word of mouth. There's no better advertisement than that."Her staffing ratio she describes as "miserable"; besides herself, there is only a full-time administrator plus three part-time tutor-organisers and occasional specialists servicing the 200-plus students."People talk a lot about urban regeneration without realising that education is the core," says Pru Pullen. "You have to get people working and active in their communities. Only education can do that. It's about giving people enough information and enough confidence to become involved in politics and community life.
"A lot of the adults who come through our doors have been brought up with the idea that education is for others, for the 'intelligent'. We have to change that way of thinking." Female students, she says, have, on occasions, been forced to give up their course because their husbands or partners thought they were "getting above themselves", what Pru Pullen calls the "Who do you think you are?" syndrome. "It's quite a common occurrence," she says.
But 2nd Chance to Learn is also trying hard to target unemployed males. "Many unskilled, unemployed men don't see education as a way out of their situation because of traditional male working-class values. We have to get them into education to break the cycle and counter the 'Who do you think you are?'attitude. It's determination that gets the students through and we shouldn't underestimate that. And it's great once they get that enthusiasm and the sense of control, the sense of where they want to go."
2nd Chance to Learn is based atThe Old Fire Station, 27 East Norton Place, London Road, EdinburghEH7 5DR; tel: 0131 661 1788
STEPPING UP: THE EXPERIENCE OF A FORMER EDUCATIONAL REFUSE-NIK
Thirty-three-year-old Sean Anderson, a single parent with a two-year-old daughter, Chloe, and no formal qualifications, is a 2nd Chance to Learn student and former educational refuse-nik.
"I switched off at school for a number of reasons, mostly to do with the fact that it was a small town school where my father taught. It was to do with pressure, but not from my parents. They only ever wanted me to be happy.
"It was pressure from my father's colleagues. 'You are the son of a teacher and should be achieving more' sums up the attitude that had me mapped out for exams and university. I rebelled and I have no regrets. Most of my peers are now qualified in jobs they probably hate.
"I left school and was free from any pressure to conform. My motto is 'Live first and then go back to education'. It's true, whoever said it, that education is wasted on the young."
But Sean became involved with 2nd Chance to Learn through a friend who was a former student. He often passed the Old Fire Station where the programme is based, and in 1997 finally "plucked up the courage" to go in.
"It was having Chloe that drove me back to education. It was a mixture of parental responsibility and the feeling that I was getting too old to be hacking around the country doing hundreds of different jobs from salesman and shop assistant to labourer and crewman on a boat.
"2nd Chance to Learn focused me. I was scouring round prospectuses of Edinburgh colleges, but this was the only establishment that I could take Chloe to, where you could get a full day in a class and not just a couple of hours of cr che facilities.
"It also offered gentle coaching rather than a more rigidly structured or authoritarian regime. At that point I think college was still a step beyond me.
While Sean studied with 2nd Chance to Learn he was able to take Chloe along with him to the Old Fire Station premises. He took 12 modules including numeracy, information technology, Scottish history, an introduction to literature, creative writing, media studies and sociology.
"Now I'm doing a flexible learning course on the Scottish legal establishment. I'm doing the course at home, but with Pru Pullen and 2CTL acting as mentors. I wouldn't be doing it if it wasn't for the staff, their accessibility, enthusiasm, commitment and ability. I can't enthuse about them enough.
"Because of the logistics of childcare which prevented me from going full-time to college, I've opted to do a Higher National Certificate in legal services part time in the evenings. I hope to become a para-legal.At the moment I'm working as a kitchen assistant.
"The 2CTL experience builds confidence and self-esteem and helps you prioritise your life. It's a way of breaking the cycle of educational deprivation. Most adults are parents, and if they don't get this kind of opportunity, then it's only the deprivation they pass on to their children."