Lifelong learning is no empty phrase for one depressed ex-mining village. Wendy Wallace explains how a larger-than-life head has transformed his school's role to give the community fresh hope.
In South Elmsall, the past is another country and they do things differently now. This Yorkshire village - a sprawl of mismatched terraces with a road slicing through its heart - was once a mining community. Now, with grassed-over slag heaps the only visual memorial, South Elmsall and its neighbours are in search of a new identity.
The home-made "for sale" signs fading in countless front windows testify to the number of local people who see escape as the only solution. Others, in the words of a local teenager "go down't gurgler" - the area has achieved national fame for the scale of its heroin problem. But a few individuals, outsiders mainly, discern exhilarating possibilities among the social and economic ruins.
Enter Graham Evans, over-sized, over-energised and generally likeable principal of Minsthorpe Community College, formerly Minsthorpe School. Born, bred and politicised in the inner city, Mr Evans is a secular missionary out here in the gently rolling hills of post-industrial Yorkshire, come to spread the word of education. "Learning has to be at the heart of regeneration," he says. "The dream was to create a learning centre for the whole community."
The slogans may be predictable but the man and his methods are not. Solid in well-polished shoes, he paces his office like Gulliver in Lilliput, knocking back herbal teas and spilling ideas at a dizzying rate. He has discarded the convention of not having adult students and children on site at the same time, built a training centre for local businesses at the school entrance and housed a creche, cadet centre and many other unexpected ventures.
Unabashed about his good connections ("David" opened the science block, a picture of him and "Tony" adorns his office wall, and the brother of Labour MP for Liverpool Walton Peter Kilfoyle is a teacher at the school), 48-year-old Mr Evans came to Minsthorpe from a headship in inner-city Sheffield with a mission to regenerate.
"Other people manage, I lead," he says. We've done a job on the expectations of the community of this place. Teachers expected children to fail. Children expected children to fail. There's been a real cultural shift."
The school's reputation and GCSE results have been turned around in the five years since Mr Evans took up his post. Minsthorpe was recognised as a "good and improving school" in 1996 (when 22 per cent of children achieved five A-Cs at GCSE, as opposed to 13 per cent in 1992). But what makes the institution remarkable is the way the sometimes nebulous concept of "lifelong learning" has been made flesh here.
Five years ago, a failing comprehensive doubled up in the evenings to provide classes in cake decoration and aerobics to a handful of people. Now, a thriving school draws 1,250 adults to 80 courses. From aromatherapy to integrated business technology, via creative writing, and holiday Spanish, Mins-thorpe is a hyper-mart of learning.
And all this happens alongside what Mr Evans calls "the core activity" of 11-18 education. Pensioners, ex-miners, housewives, secondary school students and non-uniformed sixth-formers all pass on their way to classes, giving the place the feel of a university campus.
Until Mr Evans arrived, the institution was less even than the sum of its parts - a utilitarian collection of flat-roofed, dilapidated blocks designed fittingly enough by John Poulson, the architect brought down in the local government corruption scandal of the early 1970s. But over the past five years Minsthorpe has metamorphosed into a Shirley Williams of a place - too busy to care much how it looks but so chockful of ideas it really doesn't matter.
The state-of-the-art science and technology block in red brick and tasteful turquoise, and the new training and conference centre at the entrance stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the old blocks, being re-roofed to keep out the rain. Litter blows around the site and landscaping is minimal but there is little graffiti or vandalism and everywhere an air of purpose.
In the Family Learning Centre on a Friday morning the first-aid tutor is down on the floor, demonstrating mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on a pink plastic dummy. "What do I do now?" she asks. "Recovery position," chorus the seven women and two men in the class. Student Jayne Goodwin, 40, a school meals assistant at a local primary, has come to get "more confidence with nosebleeds and falling down".
Nearby, a Year 10 class is having a PSE lesson, dreaming up images for where they live (descriptions include a "little weeping willow", a "badly-made, half-eaten trifle" and a "pair of old worn socks".) A sixth-form A-level English class is discussing a Blake Morrison poem, "Xerox".
Elsewhere, Mark Haddleton from Pontefract is studying computer-aided draughting, in a class of six people. He had to leave his job doing shifts for a building company when his 10-year-old son came to live with him because he wasn't getting on with his stepfather. "I had a career as an engineering draughtsman," he says. "I've come to get up to speed to re-enter that field. This course is right up my street and I'm learning a lot."
Adults have been recruited through extensive advertising in the local press, as well as by word of mouth and the canvassing of students. But the grim economic climate helps make people receptive. Julie Millar, who works in the community education department, says. "A few years ago, before the pits closed, people were not interested in going back to learning. They didn't need to. Now, people are returning because they need to learn new skills."
Graham Evans's dream - of deprived children getting their entitlement at school, and adults of all ages realising themselves through education - is in many ways old-fashioned. But his pursuit of it here in Minsthorpe is wholly contemporary. He may be a good teacher (economics was his subject) but he is a genius at pulling in money - pound;3 million in the past three years. The rapid expansion at Minsthorpe is largely due to "big Mr Evans" (as he is known in school) and his two-brained, clubbable, persuasiveness.
The hike in standards is due to his leadership skills, as he and everyone else readily acknowledge. "I conduct the orchestra," he beams, "I don't actually play an instrument." Big Mr Evans is full of such aphorisms, not apparently less sincere for having been said many times before.
He has recently come up with a scheme to create a "learning dome" over South Elmsall and the neighbouring villages of South Kirby and Upton (together known as the SESKU area and all blighted by pit closure). This idea, providing an irresistible counterpoint to London's Greenwich theme park, would have no physical form but would bring together local primary schools and other agencies to improve basic skills for everyone in the area.
The learning would be mainly through the medium of new technology, which, by the time the scheme launches in 2000, will have developed further. A local working party set up to design the learning dome envisages "neighbourhood learning centres" based in primary schools with Internet and computer-based literacy and numeracy programmes.
"When people drop off their children in the morning, they can spend half an hour there," saysMr Evans. "The next phase will be fibre optics. We will have to move to that new level of technology for the demand to be met by the supply."
While the principal of Minsthorpe and the enthusiastic, newly-empowered staff say they are trying to bring about a culture shift, what strikes the visitor is the change in education culture this school represents. On the board outside is not a motto but a corporate slogan that begins "Together we can". And indeed, together they must, if funding is to continue to flow into Minsthorpe. Ambitious targets have been set in return for government single regeneration budget money for deprived areas, based on the premise that courses will propel people into work (173 success stories so far).
And while staff agree that the presence of adults on site encourages good behaviour, children are more ambiguous. Making the school - now college - belong more to the community almost necessarily means it belongs a little less to the children. "Sometimes it seems they pay more attention to the adults than to us," says Laura Stanley, 15, and coming up to 11 GCSEs. "We have to tiptoe around them a bit."
The number of courses for adults at Minsthorpe throws into relief the question of education's purpose. Some of the courses - Egyptian dancing and singing from scratch, for instance - belong firmly in the tradition of education for its own sake. But the biggest uptake at Minsthorpe is for courses, mainly in computing, that hold the promise of a job.
Although the area has experienced some economic growth - with Leeds now the telephone sales capital of Europe, and the clothing retailer Next planning to set up its base in South Elmsall - jobs locally remain few and far between. Bright, personable students such as Laura Stanley and her friends are in no doubt that they will have to move away to find the futures they dream of. There is still a poignant uncertainty to the second part of Minsthorpe's slogan "Together we can . . . achieve a better future".
The family that studies together
Three generations of the Millar family are involved in Minsthorpe Community College. Julie Millar, 39, works at the school as a clerical assistant in the community education office. Julie is taking RSA Stage 3 in word processing, "just to better myself," she says. "I'll do a course a year to get better qualifications."
Julie's mother Doreen Kitchen, 65, has done French, aromatherapy and calligraphy classes at the school since she retired from her job as a secretary at social services in South Elmsall.
John Millar, 40, worked for 24 years in the pits. He has temporary work in a fruit factory "putting bananas in boxes". For him, attending an RSA CLAIT (computer literacy and information technology) course at Minsthorpe on Wednesday evenings is an act of faith, albeit tentative.
"Jobs advertised in the 'Yorkshire Post' say 'must be computer literate' so it makes sense to go and get those skills," he says. "I'm a 40-year-old white male, I've got two children and I've been in the pits all my life. That's all that comes over on a job application form. It's not very convincing is it?
"Employers are prejudiced against miners. They see us as uneducated, with a militant streak. I'm not optimistic. Even highly skilled men can't get work.
"I love the course. It's ironic; I blame technology for the state the workplace is in, but what technology can achieve is unbelievable."
John and Julie's two sons James, 12, and Alexander, eight, have both enjoyed art workshops at Minsthorpe. James goes to roller hockey on Saturday mornings while his younger brother Alex uses the Playcare facility a pre and post-school childcare service.
John and Julie constantly stress the value of education to their sons and lead by example. "They know we both do classes," says Julie. "We're trying to re-educate ourselves, and hope it rubs off on them."