When the clean-up after the worst floods since records got underway after Christmas, Rochdale Council found that workers going door-to-door were uncovering hidden long-term needs in the community, among people who hadn’t thought to ask for help.
According to Helen Chicot, a skills and employment manager who was involved in the flood response, there’s not that big a gap between the adult education pilot scheme that she runs, which targets some of the Greater Manchester borough’s most hard-to-reach populations, and this kind of emergency work.
The programme involves a small team of experts from a variety of different disciplines – education, social work, policing and housing – working together flexibly to do whatever is necessary, knocking on the doors of the people they need to engage. And after a year, it has succeeded in raising participation in education and training: the rate is now higher on this estate, one of the most deprived in the country, than in the borough as a whole.
The project has also reduced a wide variety of social problems, from police call-outs to A&E admissions, rent arrears to child protection issues. In total, a cost-benefit analysis suggests that every £1 spent on learning for students is saving £3.70 in costs to the council, NHS, welfare or policing.
“This is exactly what a major incident team does: there’s a crisis, you get a really skilled team into a place, you blitz it, sort everything out and then move on,” says Chicot.
The pilot programme has the improvised feel of an emergency response. There isn’t much money, and what there is has been cobbled together from a variety of grants and funding streams. The building on the Kirkholt estate where learners meet has been borrowed; it is due for demolition as part of a regeneration project. In the meantime, it’s the base for the Citizens’ Curriculum pilot for this sprawling estate, home to about 12,000 people. Devised by the Learning and Work Institute, the Citizen’s Curriculum incorporates a range of programmes in English, maths and digital literacy, along with civic understanding, financial knowledge and health.
The project has no specific funding or fixed learning targets, but it has thrived on the freedom that this brings. “It gave us an opportunity to try something that made sense and because it was attached to a national pilot, people aren’t going to suggest that we’re bonkers,” says Chicot.
The Learning and Work Institute audits the projects to ensure that learners have control over what they learn, explains Joyce Black, assistant director of research and development. “We are finding that the flexibility the approach offers to learners and providers delivers much better results than rigid and traditional ways of basic skills delivery,” she says.
The pilot targeted two groups underrepresented in learning: lone parents and young men. Chicot says that raising the participation age to 18 had meant that many young men stayed in learning because their families’ benefits depended on it, but weren’t engaging.
“It was young lads off this estate who were doing business admin courses,” she says. “They were never going to work in business admin; they just sat there with their hoodies up and not taking part.”
Lone parents were recruited by project workers who hung around baby clinics at the doctors, took referrals from health visitors, social workers, homeless hostels and refugee groups, and knocked on doors. Bev Taylor, project manager for Keys to the Door, the scheme for lone parents, says that getting the initial contact with often isolated and vulnerable women was the hardest and most important part.
“Our ethos is that we don’t give up trying and sometimes it might take us three years after we get a referral,” she says.
Once the learners arrive at the course, often after several encouraging phone calls from staff members, there’s a crèche for their kids, as many of them are leaving them for the first time to do something for themselves.
Social worker Luci Sanderson, the key worker for this project, begins by identifying what the mothers want to achieve for themselves and their children. “Housing, health and wellbeing, dentistry, domestic violence, parenting, those were things that people were really interested in,” Sanderson says.
Learners are asked what they want out of life. Beyond winning the lottery, they say they want to be a happy family, and to be able to go back to college or into work once their children start school.
The curriculum is built around these wishes, and uses someone’s housing needs as an opportunity to explore language skills, digital literacy and civics, for instance, as they try to navigate council bureaucracy and online forms. Topics such as domestic violence might lead to involved discussions about child development.
“The main thing is it’s properly learner-led, to the point where we don’t design anything,” says Chicot. “We can have some themes and topics like IT and digital or whatever, but essentially, it’s about getting a group of people together and putting them in control of what they learn in the order that makes sense to them, focusing on their priorities first.”
Sarah Cooke, 25, was one of the parents recruited last year after staff met her at the baby clinic. The course represented a lifeline after she escaped an abusive relationship with the father of her three-year-old son.
“I wasn’t allowed to talk to anybody, I didn’t have no friends, I was isolated from my family, so for me talking to people was a new thing,” she says. “But the way they did the course made me feel quite relaxed and safe.”
Cooke made so much progress that she was eventually recruited as a trainee project worker for Key to the Door.
“I get to see someone smiling or building up confidence, working along with them from start to finish. That was me a year ago, and now I’m teaching them,” she says.
Support from the police has also proved crucial. Officers referred the 10 families responsible for the most police calls in the estate to see if education could help them more than enforcement had been able to.
One man with a mental illness had been responsible for 30 calls to police, which fell drastically once he engaged with the course to learn better ways of seeking help. Chicot says at one point there had been a 14 per cent reduction in domestic violence calls thanks to the project.
Next month, the project will be extended to the whole of Rochdale. It remains to be seen whether it can reap the same benefits in the long-term across a whole town. Chicot, armed with her spreadsheets of cost-benefit analyses, is convinced it can. “I’ve worked for 20 years for a council, and I believe that this is the best thing I’ve seen in terms of outcomes for everybody,” she says.