Martin Whittaker examines Nottinghamshire's decision to replace a training scheme set up after the miners' strike
Earlier this month angry women were evicted from the headquarters of a training scheme they had seen as a learning lifeline.
The closure of their award-winning training initiative for disadvantaged women was always going to be a political hot potato. But Nottinghamshire County Council cannot have anticipated the outcry the decision would bring.
The Notts Women's Training Scheme in Worksop was set up in the aftermath of the miners' strike to help women from the coalfields into education and employment.
But, to the council which funded it, the centre became a dinosaur for which extinction was long overdue. Last year, it revealed plans to scrap it and open up its education to the wider community.
Women's pressure groups say Nottinghamshire is not alone in cutting off such lifelines. Trends are being monitored by national organisations including the Equal Opportunities Commission.
Liz Bavidge, director of the Women Returners Network, said: "My impression is that these schemes have had it everywhere. Equally FE colleges are no longer running taster courses for women returners just because of the way the funding mechanism operates.
The Worksop centre is now closed as the changes are made and the jobs of the eight staff are in the balance.
Employment development worker Pat Longman said staff were bewildered as to how a project that weathered 12 years under the Tories has been axed under a Labour Government committed to lifelong learning.
"It seems particularly ironic that people who have been working to combat unemployment and depression will now end up unemployed and depressed themselves," she said.
The training scheme was launched in 1985. Jointly funded by local authorities and the European Social Fund, its emphasis was on training women in traditionally male areas.
It offered Open College Network foundation courses in painting and decorating, motor mechanics, electrical engineering, carpentry and information technology, as well as short courses. All courses, childcare and transport to the centre were free. The scheme's centre in Worksop was well-equipped.
Last March, a county council report praised the standard of achievement of trainees, and the level of support provided. But it also highlighted concerns, including ineffective outreach work, the high cost of training, lack of clear targets and low numbers using the centre.
In October, Nottinghamshire County Council voted to scrap the scheme and turn the headquarters into a new family and community learning centre. This is intended to "support first steps into education, training and employment for all disadvantaged individuals and groups, in place of the women-only provision".
Sandra Bates, Nottinghamshire's assistant director of community training and education, said the old scheme was out of date. "The county council puts just under pound;500,000 into this scheme every year. Between July 1996 and 1998, there were 281 individual women who were supported. That's 140 a year. We cannot continue to justify it."
She said trainees often came in again and again to do other courses. "We find it very hard to make any connection between what we are doing here and employment. And while we do get the odd success story, more often than not even the women who go into further education don't complete courses they go on to.
"We don't want to lose what's special about this scheme but we want to offer it in a much more responsible and flexible way."
This wasn't how staff and trainees saw it. After lobbying the council a group of them occupied the centre in early December.
The protesters stayed put, finally giving up on January 4 when the county council went to court to obtain an eviction order.
Protester Jackie Berry, a 38-year-old single mother, had been studying electronics and O-level maths on the scheme. She said: "It's going to be very hard to find a place to do those sorts of practical skills. And when we do find a place, we are going to have to pay through the nose for it."
Sally Laver of the local government union, Unison, believes that despite the council's assurances about the new initiative, women who would have benefited from the centre will now find themselves excluded from training opportunities.
"I think they've lost something forever. For a number of them, the women-only aspect was important. The women who came on the scheme needed an awful lot of initial encouragement and support because they had low self-esteem. That was one of the reasons we ran it with such small numbers.
And Liz Bavidge, director of the Women Returners Network, says:
"There needs to be customised training for women specifically because there isn't a level playing field. I've mixed feelings about whether courses should be exclusively aimed at women, but however you look at it women are the most disadvantaged."