For people who have learnt the hard way

9th June 1995 at 01:00
Estelle Maxwell reports on an award-winning scheme to improve a community's basic skills.

More than a decade after he first became homeless 50-year-old David Evans is trying to rebuild his shattered life.

With support from the Little Brothers of the Good Shepherd who run a rehabilitation centre for homeless men in Wolverhampton, and staff at Bilston Community College, he is learning basic life skills, getting to grips with computers, and gradually gaining independence.

Three times a week he and a group of men from the centre go to the college's Green Lanes site. There they take advantage of its Key In to Learning drop-in centre to work on literacy skills, study catering and how to work to a budget. They also can indulge in weight-lifting or football.

"It took some guts to go to college and get back to learning. I had not been in a teaching environment since I left school at 15 but now I am enjoying taking part," said David Evans, a former HGV driver and father of five.

"I feel as if I am bringing my basic education back to a normal standard and though I find it hard to write sometimes, I do find it rewarding. I feel as if I am achieving something, it has really helped to give me back a sense of dignity."

The work Bilston has been doing with David and others like him has been recognised by the Association for Colleges. It was one of 19 colleges recently to receive the AFC's Beacon Award in acknowledgement of its outstanding practice in the field of basic education.

The Key In to Learning programme began in 1993 with the opening of the drop-in centre which was paid for with money from the European Social Fund.

Today the college runs 25 projects intended to improve the basic skills of the community in partnership with local businesses, voluntary agencies and schools. About 30 teaching and support staff help 1,500 people each year.

The projects include 10 family literacy schemes - giving parents the confidence to help their children - several workplace-based basic skills programmes including one at Cadbury's Bournville factory, 11 community-based schemes, and work with disabled people and those recovering from mental illness.

According to Liz Millman, head of the adult basic education development unit, their money from the Further Education Funding Council is dependent upon participation rates - though this has not proved a problem.

"The demand has been phenomenal and since last September we have gone from one workplace-based skills scheme and one family literacy scheme to approximately 25 different projects," said Mrs Millman.

"In the last year the percentage increase of enrolments has been about 200-300 per cent.

"One of the things which the new funding arrangements have done is to enable us to really meet the enormous need for basic skills support which were identified by the Adult Literacy and Basic Skills Unit several years ago. "

Staff involved in Key In to Learning spend much of their time restoring or raising students' self-esteem and setting up individual programmes of study. With this in mind the college is now developing an accreditation framework called "access to life-long learning".

"It is difficult for many adults to undertake or get involved in formalised learning activities. A great deal of our Key In to Learning work initially involves identifying and helping people understand their specific difficulties in a very positive way," Mrs Millman explained.

For 33-year-old Edward Pursehouse, a second-year BTEC computer studies student at nearby Wilfred College who suffers from dyslexia, the programme has been of enormous value.

He is a regular visitor to the drop-in centre on Tuesday afternoons. "Coming here has been very useful because I can discuss any problems I have and the staff give me individual help with my spelling," he said.

"I got nothing out of school and left with no qualifications. My teachers used to say I was not able to do things and I believed them. Coming here has really helped my self-image."

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