Suddenly community groups and charities have an important part to play in implementing government policy. On social inclusion, for instance. But are they ready for such work? And does it fall to FE to fill the training gaps? Martin Whittaker reports
In a quiet street of terraced houses in Rotherham are the headquarters of Community Education Resource. Walking by, you would never imagine it was part of an FE college. And having a unit and identity of its own means CEDR can act as an intermediary between the college and the voluntary and community sectors, says Gina Hawkins, the centre's manager.
"It's got an easy front door," she says. "It's friendly, there's a receptionist, there's a separate telephone number. There's always someone to greet you when you come through the door.
"A lot of us come from a community development background, so the team has a range of skills, and we have access to a whole range of expertise in the college tutors themselves."
CEDR was set up four years ago in response to the Government's agenda to widen participation. But initially the unit was tucked away in another part of Rotherham College.
"A group of us working there felt this was not OK," says Ms Hawkins."The climate was such that the whole college needed to take a responsibility for enabling people to access learning - people who wouldn't come through the college doors."
Some of the unit's work has been described as the reverse of franchising. Now, rather than the college making a link with voluntary and community groups so it can sell its wares, the needs of learners using those groups is identified and the college offers its expertise to meet them.
The college works with big charities such as Mencap and Relate but also a range of smaller groups, such as toddler groups and local churches. In one project, the college has set up a learning centre in a church vestry.
CEDR also supports the voluntary sector in other ways: aiding access, administering funding, running training workshops for voluntary group members.
The unit also has a team of community student advisers trained in counselling, which liaises with local groups. While it seems separate, the unit is not cut off from the rest of the college. There are direct links with the faculties, and Gina Hawkins is on the senior management team.
CEDR is also attracting much interest from the voluntary and community organisations in other regions, which regard it as a good model.
Ms Hawkins says the fact that CEDR can barely cope with demand provides the evidence of its success.
"I have heard people say there isn't a culture of learning in Rotherham and South Yorkshire. That is not our experience. We find people hungry for learning that's delivered in a way that's appropriate and relevant."
Other colleges are also recognising the value of working closely with the voluntary sector. Norwich City College recently created the post of Voluntary Sector Studies Co-ordinator.
Appointee Suzanne Crouch's brief is to develop working relationships with a consortium of local voluntary and community organisations.
The partnership has already borne fruit, she says, and has won a lottery bid to fund research into the skills needs of voluntary groups. She says barriers must come down on both sides so that the voluntary and FE sectors can work together."When I went beyond the bounds of this county, I was surprised to find how much resistance there was - particularly from the voluntary sector - towards the FE and HE sectors. Certainly, in Norfolk we began to think differently," she says.
Bolton College is also pursuing a new approach to the sector. From April next year the college will merge with the local authority's adult and community education service to form a community college.
The college has a new management team, and the bold move comes partly in response to the advent of the Learning and Skills Council.
"The decision was taken locally by politicians and powers that be, that a co-ordinated community college in Bolton would be better able to respond to the demands of the Learning and Skills Council," says John Clark, Bolton College's director of organisational development.
Closer ties between the two sectors are already taking effect. Gareth Evans, chief officer of the Bolton branch of the charity Age Concern, has been appointed a governor of the college. He expects much more of a role for the voluntary sector in education and training from next April.
"It depends on local partners' imagination in bringing partnerships together," he says. "I think it will vary, depending on what partnerships are already in place."