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Where learners call the shots

Number 10's social exclusion unit is taking a keen interest in one shire college. Martin Whittaker reports

A NEW-STYLE community college created to help fight rural poverty has aroused the interest of Downing Street as a model for voluntary-sector involvement.

Gloucestershire Neighbourhood College was officially launched in 1999 by the then higher education minister Baroness Blackstone, and it follows the Government's mantra of "joined-up thinking" to the letter. It had its beginnings in courses run by a network of community projects on disadvantaged housing estates whose problems have been hidden in a largely prosperous shire county.

Despite the popular image of rural opulence, some of the areas covered by the college, including wards in affluent Cheltenham, are listed among the most deprived 25 per cent nationally, according to government statistics.

The Barton ward in Gloucester is among the most deprived 10 per cent of communities in the United Kingdom.

The college has had visits from a succession of lifelong learning ministers, has attracted the attention of Downing Street's social exclusion unit, and is forging links with government regeneration initiatives.

Mark Gale, director of the Gloucestershire Neighbourhood Projects Network, which oversees nine such projects, believes the college is the key to reaching people usually alienated from education.

"It's really a collective identity for the learning work that goes on across our nine neighbourhoods," he said. "It has consolidated itself as an organisation. It has an identity and now has a clear role in learning strategies in the county. So people recognise that the neighbourhood college is here for the long term."

Last year, the college had 3,162 enrolments on European Social Fund courses - a four-fold increase in enrolments since the college began - and is preparing for its first full inspection by the Office for Standards in Education.

The college has its own prospectus offering people free or low-cost courses in their own community centres across a range of subjects and skills. Times are flexible, advice and guidance are free, and childcare is affordable.

Courses are tailored to the needs of each community. One centre, Whaddon, Lynworth amp; Priors in Cheltenham, offers book-keeping, IT office skills, car maintenance and a creche assistant course.

These estates in Gloucester, Cheltenham and outlying towns once depended on provision from further education colleges, and the neighbourhood college's partnerships with other post-16 agencies are still vital to its delivery.

The college's board members include representatives from the county's adult education service, the Gloucestershire Learning and Skills Council, the TUC, the Government Office for the South West, and the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.

But increasingly the neighbourhood college is receiving funding from the Learning and Skills Council to deliver its own courses directly. Irene Potter, the Neighbourhood College's co-ordinator, said: "When we first started developing learning, we were told these are the courses we can give you and this is when we can give them. The situation is very different now.

Residents determine what they want their local curriculum to be, and the neighbourhood college then negotiates with potential providers for that.

"It puts residents and local learners in the driving seat to determine learning opportunities in their neighbourhood."

The college is now working with local FE colleges and businesses to train its own volunteers to help people with basic skills, recognised by the local LSC as the biggest unmet need in the county.

In one initiative with insurance company Zurich, a big employer in Cheltenham, 32 members of staff are training for a level 2 adult learner support qualification. From September they will work through the neighbourhood college to support residents with literacy and numeracy problems.

The college is even tackling the teacher shortage crisis by growing its own - creating a new training route for FE lecturers and tutors. Eric Stevens (see panel), the college's first local IT tutor, will be followed by three more taking the first-step post-16 teaching qualification through the neighbourhood college next term.

The college sees its own communities as a major source of untapped skills.

It trains learning support assistants for local schools and has trained local people to become foster carers in response to a skills shortage.

"The experience of being able to find those foster carers reassured us that we will also be able to find tutors out there," said Mark Gale. "So it's building on that experience and knowledge. There's a massive level of untapped skills and knowledge out there that we can utilise to benefit the community."

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