Parents return to roots of learning

4th December 1998 at 00:00
Driving around the streets of Highfields in Stafford, Sandra Grosvenor speaks fondly of the estate where she grew up and still lives.

"It had a reputation even then for being rough," she says, "but everybody knew everybody else and there was a good sense of community.

"I remember coming on a course and one of the lecturers mentioned deprived areas such as Highfields. I was horrified - I never thought of it as deprived. But now I can see why she said it."

Today the skyline is blighted by empty tower blocks, their windows smashed as they await demolition. Ms Grosvenor - now a community link worker - points out one notorious street with boarded-up houses and paint splashed on garage doors. A boy, who should perhaps be in school, leans against a lamppost and watches us.

"Unfortunately, whoever's in charge of roads blocked off this street for God only knows what reason," she says. "All it did was to make this more of a ghetto - it's completely enclosed. Because it's all blocked off the police find it more difficult. People don't even want to walk through here now."

Highfields has a poor reputation in Stafford, one that many believe is undeserved. It has high crime rates and unemployment, a tenth of the households are single- parent families, almost half have no central heating and more than half have no car.

And when it comes to getting people into adult education courses, conventional marketing goes out of the window. Even placing an advert in the local free newspapers doesn't work - they will not deliver in Highfields.

But now the estate has been targeted in a pilot project involving Stafford College, the Grove primary school and a range of local authorities and agencies.

With these partnerships and the use of people on the ground such as Ms Grosvenor and the Grove's headteacher, David Williams, the wall between Highfields residents and learning is beginning to crumble.

The project is tackling residents' educational under-achievement head on in a place where for many this began - at the school gates.

The Highfields Project came about through the Stafford Governance - an amalgamation of 13 local service providers including the college, the borough and county councils, local health trusts and the police. They are working together to try to improve the standards of service and their efforts have just been commended by the Audit Commission.

Highfields was chosen as the 12-month pilot and a public meeting was held to gauge what was needed. Apart from the community education needs, there were other elements, such as setting up a community newsletter, establishing a meeting place, youth work and dealing with older residents' fear of crime.

Rodger Mann, policy officer for the borough council, said areas such as Highfields missed out because the borough as a whole was deemed affluent and had slipped through the funding net.

"Stafford borough doesn't have deprivation in the way that Birmingham might, for example. Nevertheless, there are pockets of problems in Highfields and one or two other estates which need tackling," he said.

The next stage is to make adult education in Highfields and other communities sustainable. On the education side, there has been European Social Fund money and Stafford College has put in its own funds. Now the aim is to establish courses in the community that get support from the Further Education Funding Council.

Stafford is one of nine colleges in the county to have won a Pounds 75, 000 Strategic Partnership bid, in collaboration with a host of other education and training providers. The bid is aimed at helping adults in disadvantaged areas throughout Staffordshire get back into education.

Christine Megson, principal of Stafford College, said: "A concern that we have is that you get pump priming for an activity. Unless you make it sustainable it can do more harm than good.

"The strategic partnership is about long-term sustainable activity for the whole partnership and individual action plans, so that not only are we working on the ground in Highfields, but we're actually producing some evaluation of what we're doing."

She believes the initial successes achieved in Highfields are vital to any long-term aim in tackling educational underachievement.

"We've got a high instance of male youth unemployment. You can work with the young unemployed and that's absolutely crucial. But the only way you can get a long-term result is by working with the whole family, and reversing what were negative attitudes to education that the parents had.

"I wasn't looking for overnight massive success. But each success - one parent going through one of these family literacy courses, progressing to a full-time college course - is a major success.

"Now they are building up confidence and coming in and that's a major hurdle. Then they're beginning the upward spiral of increased self-confidence. That will be passed onto their children and the community."

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