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A voice for women

1A new citizenship programme encourages people who need empowering to speak up. explains Nic Barnard

It seems unlikely now, but Rose Busby used to sit quietly in meetings and say nothing. "Normally I'd keep quiet because you've got all these bigwigs around you and you feel very unnerved," says this talkative mother-of-five and grandmother. "Now I'm expressing the whys and wherefores and the impact it will have on the future."

Rose, 41, is Sure Start's early years co-ordinator and board member in Low Hill and the Scotlands, a run-down part of Wolverhampton. Despite years of community involvement, she says she always felt at sea when it came to politics.

What changed her was Impact, a course in active citizenship and political literacy set up for Black Country women under a small but energetic Home Office programme called Active Learning for Active Citizenship (Alac). It offers pointers for the way communities can become more engaged and active at a time when apathy - or at least antipathy - towards politicians and the political process has never seemed greater. In a global age, political literacy becomes an essential life skill. But how to teach it?

Impact explores the system from local government to the European Union - a trip to Brussels is planned - but also aims to give women the confidence to speak up. Its 18 students, from different ethnic groups, range from teenagers to retirees.

Rose says she used to bridle at government Sure Start targets that didn't seem to meet the needs of her community. Now she understands how, say, national targets on smoking fit what she's trying to do in Low Hill - and she jumps in when she thinks "the suits" have got it wrong.

She points to the argument she prepared to win a sceptical board over to a PE and healthy eating scheme. "I don't think I would have been able to do that before the course," she says.

Her fellow student, Nusrat Sadiq, 35, says she felt similarly frustrated.

She would close her eyes to vote - "I knew nothing about politics except for Tony Blair" - yet, as a single parent and a Muslim, she knew that she wanted to change the way women were perceived and the way public services treated different cultural groups.

Since starting the course, she has helped organise a conference for 500 local women on women's mental health, an issue about which she feels strongly. And this time round she read all the manifestos and knew exactly where her cross was going.

Impact is run by one of eight "hubs" around the country for the Active Learning for Active Citizenship programme. With a little seed funding, they bring together existing grassroots programmes and networks and build a political component on to them.

Val Woodward, the project manager, says: "You can't go in and tell people what to think; you talk about things that are relevant to their everyday lives. You build on their confidence to reflect on those everyday lives and the way they fit into the world around them.

"You have to connect the local to the community, to the national, to the global."

But there is a broader political perspective. "In order for democracy to be healthy," she adds, "voting shouldn't just be a passive thing that people feel obliged to do. People have to feel they want to vote and be active in politics. At the moment, that's patently not happening."

She's right. This year's general election saw parties desperate to get their core vote out - and with good reason. At 59 per cent, the turn-out in 2001 was the lowest ever.

That figure masks wide variations revealed in a Home Office citizenship survey. This found people in their early twenties were only half as likely to say that they voted in 2001 as the over-fifties - 43 per cent compared to 85 per cent, a gap that widened with age. The rich were more likely to vote than the poor - 80 per cent among professionals and managers, against 59 per cent of those out of work.

And there were significant differences between ethnic groups. While 73 per cent of white and Asian adults said they voted, Caribbean voters (63 per cent), African (50 per cent) and Chinese (39 per cent) showed markedly lower turn-outs.

Sir Bernard Crick, former mentor to David Blunkett and the Government's adviser on citizenship, lays the blame on politicians and the media for an obsession with spin, and the death of ideology. Politicians, he suggests, have been too busy tinkering with the mechanics of the system - such as now-discredited postal voting - to make it easier to vote. "They're looking at the symptoms of low turn-out and not at the causes," Crick says.

"There's less political interest, political involvement, political trust than there was 20 or 30 years ago. It can be rebuilt, but it's going to be a long process."

There has been a noble tradition of politics and citizenship in adult education ever since RH Tawney's work with North Staffordshire miners in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The 1970s era of peace studies and women's studies, when university extra-mural departments were strong and FE colleges ran extensive community outreach programmes, were a high water mark.

Margaret Thatcher put a stop to all that. Today, funding is so closely tied to skills and qualifications, anything else is squeezed out. Richard Bolsin, general secretary of the Workers' Education Association, says of citizenship: "The problem we face today is that we don't meet any easy targets."

Labour's big target now is for every adult to reach Level 2, (equivalent to five GCSEs), but as Alan Tuckett, director of Niace, the body that promotes adult education, says: "I'm not sure what Level 2 in making sense of the world is." The adult education body has just embarked on an audit of citizenship education with the aim of lighting a fire under the debate.

Peter Lavender, director of research and development at Niace, says adult education should be tapping into the many social movements flourishing in the UK - the anti-war campaigners or debt relief groups. "Why aren't we seeing connections between them and the rather conservative world of education?" he asks.

Certainly, political education is essential at a time when governments are supposedly devolving power. Institutions from school governors to primary health care trusts are stuffed with "stakeholders" - local people representing their communities. But as Rose Busby says: "We've got parents on the boards of 15 children's centres, but we find that they won't speak up."

She says friends tell her how much she's changed and is pushing for other Sure Start programmes to run Impact-style courses. She's even begun canvassing for her local Labour party. "I've told our local councillor to watch his job," she laughs.

Nusrat Sadiq says something similar and you sense neither is quite joking.

The bigwigs had better watch out.

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