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When wishes come true

On the fringes of east London a project is attempting to close the gap between haves and have-nots, writes Margaret Lochrie.

It is a damp, grey afternoon in South Ockendon, on the western edge of Thurrock, bordering the east of London. In the middle of a small parade of shops is the community forum, which is today providing space for Wishes, a new learning scheme for local people. Inside the forum, a college tutor is running a computer workshop for parents. Nearby, the children are happily occupied in the community corner creche.

Shaun Childs, children's centre manager for South Ockendon, organised the childcare and transport, without which this workshop could not have taken place. He believes it was time well spent for he understands that, without access to learning and skills, local families will continue to struggle.

This is an area of high unemployment. Poverty and poor health are widespread, but it is the poverty of opportunity which is the most limiting factor, with nearly 40 per cent of adults having no qualifications which could be used to gain employment.

It could have been South Ockendon that David Sherlock, head of the adult learning inspectorate, had in mind when, in his annual report last year, he criticised the Skills for Life programme for failing to meet the needs of the most acutely disadvantaged adults it was designed to help. Although the programme met its initial targets, half of those gaining qualifications were 16 to 18-year-olds. The more serious criticism is that Skills for Life pitches too high - its literacy and numeracy programmes are too difficult for the most disadvantaged.

Wishes was the idea of Thurrock children's services, which, with local colleges and other partners, obtained Learning and Skills Council and European Social Fund money for an authoritywide initiative to engage unemployed parents in training and learning opportunities.

Sue Green, strategic lead for nought to fives believes that the Wishes project is a key element of children's centre development, to close the achievement gap between disadvantaged children and their peers.

Wishes is innovative because it is inverting conventional ways of thinking, for example, the accepted wisdom that there are "hard-to-reach" learners rather than "hard to access" services. Instead it has focused on those aspects of institutions which put people off. Some of the barriers are practical - lack of transport, shortage of time, or sick children - but others relate to emotional factors. These might include stress in the family, for instance from illness or domestic violence, low self-esteem, or painful earlier experience of education or of being in care.

For all these reasons, workshops and others sessions are held within community premises and each learner has his or her own unique learning plan and learner mentor.

Since last August, more than 90 parents have made contact with Wishes.

Hayley, in Purfleet, is one of them. Currently lacking qualifications, mother-of-two Hayley is determined to become a paramedic but, isolated at home, it was the encouragement of her health visitor which convinced her to come to a Wishes morning in the children's centre.

"This is just what I want. I am getting my friends to join."

The project is reshaping the way services are offered. Early-years provision is now more closely aligned with a adult learning. A Wishes "passport", provides the learner with both a means of crossing the frontiers of different institutions and a record of the journey travelled.

But although Wishes is designed to help parents gain employment, learning also helps with family life. Michelle, a lone parent, wants to improve her maths, both to get a job and manage her own budget. Now enrolled on two college courses, she says: "It's good for me and because I can help them now, it's good for the children."

The early evidence from the Wishes project suggests that she is right. With newly-introduced legislation designed to raise outcomes for all children, providing opportunities for parents may be one of the best places to start.

Margaret Lochrie is a director of Capacity, a children's services think-tank, which designed Wishes from an initial outline

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