Government initiatives give further education a key role in the fight against social exclusion. Martin Whittaker looks at a model scheme
AT THE Matson Neighbourhood Project, they keep a poster on the wall tallying the numbers of those the scheme has helped.
It has found more than 370 jobs for residents; 2,650 have turned to the scheme for advice on a range of problems from debts to housing needs. A further 800 have come for help with training and education.
The figures were put up mainly for the benefit of members of the Government's social exclusion unit who visited the Gloucester estate earlier this year. The project won praise from the unit in its report Bringing Britain Together: A National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal.
Now the project is about to take its education side a stage further, developing computer links via the Internet with further education colleges in Gloucester and Stroud. Anyone will be able to come in and use the facilities for study.
From his office, project co-ordinator Andy Rickell looks out at the houses of the large 1950s estate on the city's outskirts. He says there is a good community spirit and many like it here. But the area is among the poorest in the UK in terms of unemployment, crime and educational attainment.
The roots of Matson Neighbourhood Project go back to 1990, when local residents successfully fought plans by Gloucester City Council to sell off housing stock.
Since then it has evolved into three sites on the estate, offering a wealth of advice and help and a way into education and jobs.
"The crucial thing in its success is that it's run by local people," said Mr Rickell. "So it has a credibility that perhaps other things don't have. People come across the threshold and they get treated in a friendly manner."
In the Trinity Centre, another of the project's sites, Julie Bolton sits behind the counter at the community shop. She was a single parent struggling on benefits until she signed up for a New Beginnings course at the neighbourhood project. Now she is paid to run the shop.
There's also a doctor's surgery, a creche and a reception area where job opportunities and courses are advertised.
In another room is the computer suite where students are into their third week of an introduction to information technology course. Courses on offer also include an access course (New Beginnings), basic skills, book-keeping and first aid.
The suite is about to double its size, with new computers and video-conferencing link-ups with Stroud College and Gloucestershire College of Arts and Technology (Gloscat). There is also a bid in for Further Education Funding Council money and more tutors.
Matson resident Amanda Williams had nine O-levels from school, but decided to go back into education in her mid-30s. She took an access course offered by the project and recently completed a social sciences degree.
"It's done a lot of good for Matson," she said. "It's helped a lot of people get jobs, it's encouraged people to go back into education.
"At 38 I'm very confident, but a lot of people in this area aren't. So I think it's done a wonderful job. It's used very wisely and lots of people do use it."
A mile down the road is the project's One-Stop Shop. This offers advice and help on a range of issues, everything from bad debts to jobs and training. It even sells second-hand clothes.
The project did a survey into residents' education, training and advice needs. Out of 3,000 questionnaires sent out, 450 were returned, admittedly helped by the inducement of pound;1 for filling it in.
Employment worker John Boe said: "Information technology very quickly became a permanent part of it. A lot of parents said that their kids knew a lot more about it than they did.
"Also a lot of jobs - even retail jobs and in warehouses - ask for basic computer skills nowadays. Now our IT course is full before we even start and there's a waiting list."
The Matson scheme is one of seven, soon to be joined by an eighth, under the Gloucestershire Neighbourhood Project Network. But while praise from Government is a welcome pat on the back, funding is always an issue.
Network co-ordinator Mark Gale, said the Matson project gets pound;55,000 a year from the local authority out of an income of between pound;250,000 and pound;300,000. The biggest funder is NatWest, and other money comes from charitable trusts. He said: "Local government have been good partners on the patch. On a central government basis I think it would be good if they would recognise the value of it and put some resources into it, but I don't think it's solely the preserve of the central government to do that.
"I think there is some responsibility on local businesses and other potential local partners, like probation departments and other agencies.
"This is about residents being in control and about it being holistic, so that jobs and training don't sit entirely separately from the advice, from the mental health support and from the community enterprise work that goes on on the patch. That's what gives it its real value."