The students who turn up at a Manchester learndirect centre come from backgrounds as diverse as the courses and teaching on offer. Dominique Jackson reports
It is not easy to be entirely sure when you have arrived in Levenshulme.
Alighting from the train, the first legible sign reads "St isiNon Iarnr"d".
Further down the platform, similar notices are inscribed in Arabic, Urdu, Cyrillic and Polish. This polyglot area is less than five minutes from the heart of Manchester, and in many ways it is a typical inner city area, with its fair share of rundown back streets and an emblematic array of the 21st century social problems so often found within such a diverse, 15,000-strong community.
Along the busy artery of the A6 Stockport Road, halal butchers jostle alongside lively pubs catering for the large Irish population and a surprising number of chic antique shops selling reclaimed Victoriana, ceramics and glass, vintage clothing and furniture. Next door to the Claddagh Cafe, the neat premises of the international learning centre strike an incongruous note. Yet the regimented rows of desks and computer terminals are all in use and the office buzzes with the low hum of instruction and concentration.
The ILC in Levenshulme is a learndirect centre, specialising in English as a second language and IT training. One of seven centres in the Manchester area run on behalf of learndirect by ILC, the Levenshulme office caters for an average of 75 learners per day, offering a range of literacy, numeracy and life skills courses, starting from the very basics and allowing for measured progress to nationally recognized certification.
The centre's combination of online technology and classroom teaching allows students to pace their learning to suit their own schedules. They can come in for one-to-one tuition, attend classes when time allows, or study at home, particularly if they have a computer.
The centre acts as a focal point for students of more than 40 nationalities, including a significant proportion of refugees and asylum- seekers. "It's impossible to talk about an average or typical learner here," explains the centre manager, Raheel Nawaz. "We welcome everyone - from younger people who, for whatever reason, left school early and now want to enhance their career prospects, to senior citizens who want to maintain their faculties or who may see learning new skills as a way to get out of the house and meet people."
A regular student at the Levenshulme centre is Iranian-born Farrokh Shahriary, 44, who arrived from Germany last year, disillusioned by the lack of job opportunities, and by what he believes is increasing discrimination against foreigners as Germans themselves struggle to find work. He is taking courses in IT and English and particularly recommends the twice-weekly lunchtime conversation classes. A linguist and historian by training, who has translated several key works of German literature into Farsi, Farrokh's first goal was to find a job, closely followed by reading Macbeth and Hamlet in the original.
Despite its extraordinary diversity, community spirit in Levenshulme appears remarkably robust. Last year, the annual Levenshulme village festival was rescheduled to coincide with both Guy Fawkes night and the Islamic festival of Eid. According to Mr Nawaz, forging and maintaining strong links with the local community has been vital to the continued success of the centre. Levenshulme is home to the largest Irish community outside London and has substantial Pakistani and Afro-Caribbean populations. There is also a long-established community of Dawoodi Bohras, who belong to the Ismaili Taiyebi sect of Muslims. More recently, there has been a significant influx of eastern Europeans, notably Poles, who are attracted to the well-established Roman Catholic infrastructure.
Recent arrivals have contributed to the continued popularity of the English as a second language courses, while newer factors have come to bear on some longer-term inhabitants. Older Asian residents, many of whom may have been here for decades without mastering the language, are now motivated by the need to help children or grandchildren with their homework and to communicate with their teachers. Since September 11, many Muslims have felt renewed pressure to show that they are intent on integration - enhanced command of English being perhaps the simplest way to demonstrate this. The centre works closely with the leaders at Levenshulme's Madina Mosque, while a recent 12-month Urdu-language campaign on the popular local network Asian Sound Radio was particularly successful in recruiting learners.
One of these is Rizwan Akbar Malik, a law graduate from Sargodha in the Punjab. "Not long ago, I was unable to speak even a word of English. Even though I had studied the language at school in Pakistan, when I arrived here I just could not understand the Manchester accent. I knew nobody and had no opportunity to practise," he explains in cautious, but fluent and well-articulated English."Since I have been coming here, my confidence has improved enormously and I am now applying for a place on the Bar vocational course at Manchester Metropolitan University. Also, the teachers here are very friendly, enthusiastic and efficient."
Securing and maintaining funding for centres such as Levenshulme remains a challenge for learndirect which until recently has relied on the public sector for nearly 98 per cent of its income. According to Mr Nawaz, the audit process, both internal and external, is becoming increasingly rigorous. "Levels of learning itself are not so difficult to quantify. It is much more difficult to measure satisfaction," he explains. However, the centre is already making its own contribution to help boost learndirect's commercial earnings.
The vast majority of learndirect's courses are offered absolutely free.
However, in response to huge demand, the ILC in Levenshulme has recently introduced a new, paid-for series of classes to prepare students for the "Life in the UK" citizenship test, even though candidates have to take the exam itself at the ILC centre in nearby Withington. The classes cost pound;100 but this was universally held to be a worthwhile investment. The test itself is reputedly tricky - the pass mark is around 75 per cent - and it costs a non-refundable pound;34, which must be paid every time the test is re-taken. The centre has also had a great deal of interest in a similarly paid-for course in CV preparation and interview skills.
According to the centre's IT tutor and facilitator, James Reid, a key hallmark of the learndirect approach is flexibility and dynamism.
"Obviously, being able to help students on a one-to-one basis is immensely valuable but here we are always thinking on our feet. For example, we discovered that eight or nine learners were all getting stuck on a particular module of the PC technicians' course. We arranged a session to guide them through their difficulties. It was a really positive exercise.
Interaction with the students helps expand our teaching skills, too."
The centre also benefits from state-of-the-art equipment, including four generously sized, separate classrooms, complete with whiteboards and full media facilities.
"The IT resources we have here would put many more conventional colleges to shame," explained Mr Reid. "Students here can progress relatively quickly through seven basic modules to gain the European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL) from the British Computer Society, which is now an internationally recognized benchmark for office computer competency."
Keeping learners on track is a continual problem. Anyone who lapses is likely to receive a series of emails and postcards, badgering them to return. Nevertheless, the centre is particularly proud of its high success rate: more than 70 per cent of learners stay on after completing the first course they sign up for to try something else on offer.
One satisfied customer is Raul Salgado from Pepinales, a tiny village 2,500m up in the Andes of Ecuador. Raul, 33, with an MA in international politics from a German university, has already completed both levels of English as a second language but continues to attend the centre.
"It's a great place to meet other people, many of whom may be in a similar situation to yourself, and it also provides an excellent opportunity for all kinds of people to develop themselves," he explains. Raul is taking the driving your car course, a computer simulation, and hopes to take his test later this year.
I've done it!
* "I've passed! Amazing!" There is no disguising Gemma Cartney's broad smile of delight and relief as she brandishes the slip of paper confirming that she is now the proud possessor of a City Guilds level 1 certificate in adult literacy. Gemma is 20 and her new baby, Caylun, is just five months old; she has been coming to the international learning centre (ILC) in Levenshulme for only a couple of weeks. She now plans to enrol on an IT course, working initially towards the European Computer Driving Licence, which she hopes will support her application to study beauty therapy at college locally, starting this September. She is also planning to take some more general business and management courses over the next few months.
"When I was at school, I just wasn't that interested. We didn't even have any proper IT training, and the few classes I did take were so boring, I don't think I ever really took anything in," she explains. "I left school and managed to get an NVQ in hairdressing but after that, I just sort of drifted into telesales jobs. Now that the baby is getting a little bigger, I decided it was time to sort myself out and think seriously about what I was going to do in the future," she says, proudly showing off a picture of a rosy, smiling baby on her mobile phone.
Gemma's first call was the local job centre where she was advised to head straight for the ILC, just around the corner on Stockport Road. As part of a new strategic alliance between Jobcentre Plus and the Ufi, agreed in March this year, many new jobseekers like Gemma will be referred directly to nearby learndirect centres for suitable courses, practical advice and guidance.
The flexibility of the ILC's courses and combination of online learning and class-based tuition was particularly attractive to Gemma, who now aims to spend up to three hours a day at the centre, just as long as she can organise appropriate child-minding. For now, her partner David is at home baby-sitting his young son.
"I've always been a get-up-and-go sort of person and I probably wouldn't do anything differently if I had my time over again," she says. "But now I've decided that beauty therapy is for me, I want to do everything I possibly can to make a success of it. I think I'd really like to run my own business one day. You know, offering complementary therapies and everything, like massage and reflexology.
"They are bound to get more and more popular and there isn't anyone else around here offering anything like it."
In January, Ufi launched the world's first free telephone careers guidance service. It is running as a pilot until July 2007 and aims to help 100,000 people. Two hundred advisers work shifts in two call centres, answering queries from 8am to 10pm, seven days a week.
Callers speak to an information adviser who can help with general issues, such as interview techniques, writing a CV or places to look for jobs or courses. If callers' questions are more complex, they are passed to a learning adviser, who specialises in particular types of work or can give counselling about major changes in career direction.
Aimed at people qualified below A-level, AS- level, Btec National Diploma or NVQ 3 standard, or anyone returning to work after a career break, the guidance service can be contacted on 0800 100 900