Where even the 'terrified' are finding their feet

6th June 2008 at 01:00
From dancing queens to silver surfers, Jean McLeish finds out how community-based courses are changing lives
From dancing queens to silver surfers, Jean McLeish finds out how community-based courses are changing lives

In the distance, a woman's voice calls out a rhythmic "slow, slow, quick, quick, slow" in time to romantic-sounding music. Wednesday evening is ballroom dancing at Catherine Street Community Centre near Aberdeen College.

Anyone who thinks city centres are bereft of community spirit should come here. It's a hive of activity seven days a week, and it's been like this for nearly 25 years, thanks to Trena Clunes and friends.

There's line dancing and sequence dancing, ballroom dancing and tea dancing, bingo, carpet bowls, mother and toddlers, pensioners' lunch club and disco for the kids. There's also an over-40s group (who are mostly over 60) and "The Cronies", who meet on Tuesdays and have decided to make no secret of their advancing years.

High-rise flats tower beside the centre, so events here give neighbours an opportunity to socialise and get to know each other. But there are pockets of deprivation - not everyone enjoys the affluence the oil industry has brought to this city.

In recent years, thanks to Aberdeen College, computing and IT skills have been added to the centre's endless list of activities. So on Monday afternoons, when the laptops from the college arrive, it's eyes down as "the terrified" get to grips with fonts and formats and the information superhighway.

Trena chairs the centre's committee and is the persuasive personality who encouraged a dozen classmates to embark on "Computing for the Terrified Part 1", a few years ago. Since then, they have completed "Terrified Parts 1 and 2" and "Computing for the Quietly Confident". Now they're not terrified at all.

Trena, 56, is a care worker in Loch Court sheltered housing complex, behind the college. Some of the women there are learning computing skills too; again, the college tutor comes to them in their residents' lounge, with laptops they can borrow each week for their class.

"I would never have gone to the college for computer classes. I don't think I would have had the courage to go in among people I didn't know," says Trena, as the ballroom dancers skirt the floor in the hall behind her. "But because it's in the community centre, and it's homely, and I know a lot of the people who are going to be there, it certainly gives you confidence."

But Trena did go to the college as a special guest last year. She was presented with a Student Community Citizenship Award for encouraging interest in classes in her community centre. These classes were part of an initiative developed through the Local Area Partnership, a forum for the college and partners to explore opportunities to benefit neighbours.

"In the case of our local community, we know that in the streets around us there are people who can see it from their living room window, but have never been inside," says Rob Wallen, director of learning and teaching at Aberdeen College.

By boosting the signal from the college's wireless network, it was strong enough to reach residents in surrounding housing, allowing staff to run free classes using loan laptops. In other venues, wireless cards were used to enable internet access.

Classes in computing, including courses for non-English speakers, have been run for parents at primary schools. Sessions have been arranged for residents in local multi-storey flats and at nearby community centres. This year, 134 people have taken part in 10 free community-based courses.

"There is a huge number of people for whom computing is an unknown, who don't know how to use it," says Alan Smith, community and lifelong learning manager at Aberdeen College. He says demand for "Computing for the Terrified" is insatiable.

There are 13 in Trena's class and using computers has become part of their routine. Their ages range from 40 to 80 and they use what they've learnt in daily life - to email friends or use Skype with webcams to speak to family overseas or book holidays.

Earlier this year, Aberdeen College was the only Scottish winner of a Beacon award from Becta for e-enabling organisational development. It was recognised for its cutting-edge use of new technology across its courses and for using IT to improve management, efficiency and access to learning.

Among developments was the introduction of online applications for students, making the process faster and easier to track. The awards are organised by the Association of Colleges to celebrate best practice in further education and are open to 400 colleges across the UK.

As well as promoting inclusion in areas of deprivation, the free classes give people new skills, and encourage some community-based students to pursue new educational opportunities inside the college.

Vera Rigby, 63, is one of the students at Loch Court sheltered housing complex where Trena works: "I started the computer course here and then I decided to go to the college," says Vera, who has her own laptop. "I would never have thought of going to the college. It was ace. Now I email my daughter in the west Highlands and go onto the internet to find out things."

Some are interested to link up with family, like 74-year-old Margaret Williams: "My sons do it and they encouraged me to join in, and I enjoy the company as well."

Residents at Fraser Court flats have also benefited from college tuition and some have their own computers: "I bought a laptop and started to catch up with bits I had missed when I was ill," says Margaret Innes, 62.

Up the road at Froghall Community Centre, John Norrie, 76, and his wife Pat, have joined the class together and are still at the "terrified" stage. "We got a computer for Christmas from the family and we wanted to be able to use it properly," says John, tapping his way hesitantly on the keyboard.

"It's better than sitting goggling the TV - we get a good laugh tormenting one another," Pat calls over, too engrossed to move her eyes from her screen."

Most of the people in this class are over 50 and one or two are around 80, yet they look younger than their years: "It's what's on the inside," their tutor smiles.

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