Stolen only from the tree of knowledge . . .

14th February 1997 at 00:00
Diane Spencer visits a centre that puts the Kennedy Committee ideals into practice

It claims to be the centre that gets to the parts other agencies cannot reach.

The Manchester Education Resettlement and Training centre brings training to ex-offenders, drug addicts and alcoholics, people who may never have been inside a college in their lives.

It has encouraged more than 2,000 volunteers to help run courses, including former students, and has been praised by Helena Kennedy QC as the type of project which must be at the heart of widening participation in further education and training.

She said work such as that carried out by the central Manchester agency was vital now. As chair of the Further Education Funding Council committee charged with widening participation, Ms Kennedy called for immediate action to bring together the range of social services, the Home Office, colleges, industry and the voluntary sector - anyone involved in post-16 education and training - for better strategic planning.

She visited MERC on a fact-finding mission as she compiled interim recommendations for the long-awaited report, published last week. The urgency of her demands prompted the FEFC immediately to set aside Pounds 1m a year for two years to pilot wider partnership schemes.

This has reassured MERC director David Haley who insisted that her committee capitalise on existing good practice.

"We need to get the message across that this type of education has existed for a long time, but it has always been marginalised," he said. "It's not a case of how to do it, but getting the funding mechanism to do it.

MERC, which celebrates its 20th anniversary today, has already reached 10,000. Based on the fourth floor of a small block in the city centre, it offers basic skills, maths, English, information technology, typing and word processing, art, drama, music. One afternoon is for women only when they are offered creative writing, introduction to computers and a "make your experience count" course.

Mr Haley has guided the centre from the beginning when it was established by the National Association for the Resettlement of Offenders. In 1992 Manchester had to make harsh budget cuts and NACRO was forced to consider closure. Mr Haley and his colleagues formed a management company, the Northern Education and Resettlement Information Services. But the Kennedy committee concluded that such vital training centres should not be left to the whim of ad hoc arrangements. Other organisations have not been as fortunate as MERC.

The management company also widened its scope by setting up a Misusers of Alcohol and Drugs Education (MADE) project as many offenders end up in jail through drink or drug abuse. The centre also welcomes people with mental health problems.

"We provide the education bits of other people's resettlement packages, " he explained. Students are referred by the probation service, drug and alcohol rehabilitation centres, social services or health departments. The city still provides most of the funding, Pounds 77,000 from the adult education service. Some courses are franchised through the City College and the Manchester College of Arts and Technology.

"Sometimes we struggle to get any in. A mainstream college would have to close the course," Mr Haley said. "We have to bend the money to fit the people. "

About 120 students, mainly men, use the centre helped by 80 volunteers. Brian, who started as a student in September 1995 on a computer literacy and information technology course, is now studying at MANCAT for an national vocational qualification, but spends several hours at the centre. "I'm putting something back as well as learning. I'm getting my confidence back."

Volunteers get a four-hour training session before they start and can go on to a free 10-week course leading to a qualification.

Cameron Cotterill, who runs the MADE project, said it had been successful, particularly as many had become volunteers, like Brian. The centre is one of the few agencies that offer opportunities for people with a record of drug and alcohol abuse. Some were still on methadone prescriptions - a heroin substitute and would not get past the door, he said.

He is proud that virtually nothing has been stolen from the centre during the three-year project. "Apart from the odd pen nothing goes."

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