An innovative partnership is helping mentally ill people get back into education, reports Harvey McGavin
Behind the scenes at the British Museum, something unusual is happening. In a room off one of the galleries, a woman is handing out money. But though surprising, that's not what is unusual.
Virginia Hewitt, the curator of banknotes, is showing rare paper money from the museum's collection to students on Barnet College's Community Link course. The course - winner of an Association of Colleges' Beacon Award for Excellence two years ago - helps people with a history of mental health problems take their first steps back towards conventional education or employment, by an unconventional route.
Alongside subjects such as computers, English and mathematics, plus yoga, dance and discussion groups on various topics, the two-year pick-and-mix programme includes an innovative module on museum studies.
Three times a term, classes are held in the British Museum's coins and medals department, where students can quiz curators about artefacts in the museum's archive. Strange denominations, ranging from an A4-size 16th-century Chinese banknote to modern plastic currency from Brunei, are passed around the room by Mrs Hewitt, who tells the stories behind these and other uncommon coinage.
This collaboration between the north London college and museum is one feature of a course which has strived to provide new and interesting ways of engaging one of further education's least accessible audiences.
The Tomlinson Report on special needs students criticised colleges for not doing enough for people with mental health problems. But Barnet College has tried to make care in the community a reality by helping people out of institutions and into education.
Community Link began as a joint pilot project with the local psychiatric hospital Friern Barnet nine years ago with just six students. When the hospital closed in 1992, course leader Zoe Gerrard began to think of ways of helping former patients.
"When the course started we felt like pioneers as we had no model to follow or from which to get ideas," she says.
The success of the course has been due to the sensitive handling and encouragement of students with a range of psychiatric disorders and a variety of educational experiences. "In theory anyone can come to college," says Ms Gerrard, "but we found that people with mental illness tend to lose confidence and they needed something that was more of a gentle introduction."
Now the course, which carries Open College accreditation and can lead to other qualifications, has 55 places and is oversubscribed. The students, who are referred from health authorities in Barnet and neighbouring Haringey, have suffered mental disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia or manic depression.
The change of status from patient to student can be a big boost in itself, says Ms Gerrard. "We have to make sure that they have got to a stage in their recovery where they are ready for something like this. We advise them to start off in a fairly small way and progress from there."
The museum studies option started last September - the first such partnership set up by the British Museum's recently appointed access co-ordinator, Sue Picton.
"Museums are often intimidating places for inexperienced visitors. This project is helping us to explore how this can be changed," she says.
"The enthusiasm of the students has been most rewarding. We recognise the important potential the programme has for the students, as it may lead to further museum study, voluntary museum work or even employment within the field. It has been very inspiring."
Ms Gerrard has seen students change dramatically after joining the course. "We had one lady who had obsessive compulsive disorder and didn't communicate at all. Her face was like a mask and she hardly said a word to anybody. But by the end of the course she was chatting away and she is still at college now, four years later."
Another student, a primary teacher who left her job after contracting myalgic encep-halomyelitis and becoming depressed, was taken on by the college to teach part time on a desk-top publishing course after successfully editing the course newsletter.
The small group visiting the museum have similarly encouraging tales. Michael, a former police sergeant who left the force after being attacked and suffering post traumatic stress disorder, has found the course a revelation. "I had a bad experience at school and I thought all colleges were horrible places, but now I know they're not. I liked museums but I always thought they were just full of mummies. Coming here has really opened my eyes."
Terry's abiding memory of school is of a teacher giving him a thick ear. "I had problems with reading and writing and they just ignored me. I was the class dunce.
"I have got a lot out of this course and I have found it really interesting. It has improved my vocabulary and got me thinking about getting back towards working. And I passed a literacy exam - it's the only thing I have passed in my life. To me, that's brilliant."
"Before I came on this course I had lost my job and become very reclusive, staying in the house all day and watching TV," says Sarah. "It has really boosted my confidence.
"I passed a GCSE in English and that was a really big thing for me. I see it as a stepping stone from being ill to being well again."