Wrong side of Oxford's wall

4th August 2000 at 01:00
A STORY persists in Cutteslowe, north Oxford, about the area's infamous wall.

In the 1930s the city council built terraced houses and flats alongside private semi-detached homes. Outraged residents responded by building a wall, dividing themselves from the new council estate.

The wall came down in 1957, but today you can still see the dividing line. The council estate is still there - a pocket of deprivation in otherwise prosperous north Oxford.

"It's not quite so demarcated now because there are some home-owners in the council housing," says local community worker Pippa Sandford.

"But there are some very, very deprived families there and we do suffer a lot of disaffection."

The Cutteslowe wall has come to symbolise another side to Oxford - one never seen by the hordes of tourists.

The city, famous across the world for its ancient university colleges, suffers from a gaping learning divide, according to a report by the Oxfordshire Learning Partnership.

While Oxford has areas of affluence, it also has the highest number of street sleepers outside London and areas of deprivation where ex-manufacturing workers struggle to find jobs.

Oxfordshire has one of the most skilled workforces in the country. Yet 14 per cent of the workforce have no qualifications at all, and a further 9 per cent have not reached level 2 (equivalent to a C or better at GCSE).

And despite Oxford's world-class learning facilities, many potential learners lack transport to reach them, says the report.

A particular concern is basic skills. A fifth of Oxfordshire adults have poor levels of literacy and numeracy - on a par with the national average.

But in some areas the figure is higher. In Blackbird Leys, Oxford's biggest housing estate, nearly 27 per cent of adults have poor literacy and nearly 32 per cent poor numeracy.

The report - A Learning Plan for Oxfordshire - sets out a blueprint for tackling this divide.

The learning partnership recently won pound;49,000 of government cash for a community roject to boost basic skills.

Blackbird Leys is a sprawling estate of 50s and 60s housing, which grew up around the former British Leyland (now BMW) plant at Cowley. The estate has doubled in size in recent years. The area was hit hard when the car giant laid off workers in the 1980s.

Sarah Loving, a basic skills tutor at the Blackbird Leys campus of Oxford's FE college, says the area suffers from a negative image. "People won't drive here in the daytime because they're afraid their car is going to be vandalised or nicked."

But Blackbird Leys does well in terms of education providers - Ms Loving, who is employed by the council, estimates there are around 26 offering courses for adults.

Yet despite this, she says help with literacy and numeracy is still only reaching a fraction of those who need it. "We have tried basic skills work in different settings. What tends to happen is that we send in a tutor for two hours a week. Some people come, some people don't. But it generally fails because it's not embedded."

Oxfordshire's government-funded initiative aims to overcome this. In the pilot project staff and clients at two mental health rehabilitation projects in Oxford and at family centres in nearby Banbury are being trained as basic skills tutors.

The scheme is being evaluated by the Basic Skills Agency and the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, the national organisation for adult learning.

Sara Binns of the Heart of England training and enterprise council, which has spearheaded the project, says ultimately it aims to train 30 basic skills tutors across Oxfordshire. Sir Claus Moser's report on the state of the nation's basic skills says one in five adults is functionally illiterate and innumerate. "We are only reaching 6 per cent of that group in Oxford - that's all." says Sara Binns, who adds that a big problem is the stigma of being labelled illiterate or innumerate.

"So we have to find another way - and this is an experiment to see if this approach works."

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