The virtues of being parochial

The sleepy image of the parish council is

challenged by an unusual partnership in Gloucestershire, writes Martin Whittaker

IT is that most English of institutions - the parish council. At the headquarters of Ashchurch Parish Council, near Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, portraits of parish chairmen past and present line the walls. While other institutions modernise, a visitor might think the concerns of this one must be as parochial as ever.

It might come as a surprise therefore on a Monday morning to find an adult learners' class under way in these very offices. Students sit around a big table as tutor Graham Adams gives them a lesson on English and Welsh non-conformists.

The course is taking place thanks to a partnership between Gloucestershire College of Arts and Technology and two parish councils, Ashchurch and Tewkesbury Town Council, to offer

IT-based courses in their communities.

Steve Lewis, Ashchurch parish councillor, admits this is an unusual role for a parish. But the partnership with the college followed statistics which revealed a poor take-up of further education courses in the area.

Although it is seen as an affluent market town, Tewkesbury and surrounding areas also have hidden pockets of deprivation.

"It came as something of a shock that numeracy and literacy rates among the local population weren't as good as one would expect," says Mr Lewis.

"We recently lost a couple of large employers with fairly skilled workforces. A lot of people really need to re-skill and encourage new manufacturers of a reasonable calibre into the area.

"The parish council took the decision that, while we may not have legislative powers, we had a social responsibility to encourage economic regeneration."

The council's original plan was to team up with it neighbour council in Tewkesbury to bid for government regeneration money to open an information technology learning centre.

But the parishes became concerned that they were stepping outside their powers in making the bid. And so the college stepped in.

The college has a good track record of community provision, says David Grocott, its director of community strategy.

"It's part of our commitment and strategyto develop first-step learning opportunities in the places where people are.

"We have done it for years with neighbourhood projects and minority groups in Gloucester. We thought a natural progression would be working with parish councils."

The two parish clerks and two members sit on the project's management committee.

Apart from providing a free venue for the courses, the council's role lies in being a source of local knowledge and in being able to engage local people.

One of the first things the partnership did was to produce a questionnaire on people's learning needs, distributing it with the parish newsletter.

An open day generated enough interest for the college to lay on half a dozen recreational courses.

The partnership has now bid for regeneration money to furnish the two councils with laptop computers for a mobile information technology centre.

The value of linking with the parishes is already apparent. Discussions are already under way with school governors about the project providing computer training for local teachers.

"Members of staff at the school can just pop across the road to the parish council buildings and get training at minimum cost," says Steve Lewis.

Students attending recreational courses at the council offices are enthusiastic.

"The only colleges we have are in Cheltenham and Gloucester," says student Sharon Hunt. "This is only around the corner for most of us."

The partnership has been welcomed by the National Association of Local Councils and could provide a model to deliver services other than education at parish level.

Chief executive John Findlay said: "Clearly there is terrific scope for parish and town councils to provide IT access points for their communities.

"Local people have a right to one-stop access to key information on issues such as health services, council tax and education.

"What's happening in Ashchurch and Tewkesbury represents exactly the kind of IT problem-solving we are currently promoting to the Government.

"These kinds of partnerships are an excellent means of improving educational opportunities, particularly in rural areas where social inclusion is increasingly a central issue."

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