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Year of the cash

The Millennium Commission may be synonymous with the Dome, a costly embarrassment now consigned to the white elephants' graveyard. But for thousands of communities all over Britain the commission has meant a refurbished village hall - or perhaps a state-of-the-art space simulation centre. Hilary Wilce looks beyond Greenwich at what nearly pound;2 billion has done for educational projects across the country.

What were the great projects that marked the beginning of the 21st century in Britain? Well, there was the late, largely unlamented Millennium Dome, of course. London also acquired the rather more durable Tate Modern and new central courtyard at the British Museum (magnolia stonework notwithstanding). And, away from the capital, the old ambulance station in Kingsbridge, Devon, is now a thriving youth centre. The old what?

You probably won't be aware of the last of these four projects, and yet this modest scheme reflects the millennium legacy every bit as much as the showier monuments. Because, away from the gaze of the metropolitan media, the Millennium Commission has spent the past few years quietly pouring millions of pounds of lottery money into projects to mark this milestone of human history. Now, as the commission's work comes to fruition, it is possible to see the patchwork of science, environmental and community projects that has been laid across Britain.

"Almost all our work - with the exception of funding for village greens and the help we've given to rehang church bells - has an educational role of some sort," says the commission's director, Mike O'Connor. In all, the commission will have spent around pound;2 billion when it winds up in the summer. The Kingsbridge Next Generation Project received a mere pound;167,000, but, with that amount matched by funds from local sources, has been able to convert an old ambulance station into a high-quality drop-in centre, with youth clubs, information technology classes, cr che, garden, counselling services, an after-school facility, and a community cafe where police officers from the station across the road mingle with locals.

"I get to be with all my friends, and the computers are good. I don't have one at home," says 17-year-old Karen Lilley. Charley Stanluerie, 13, likes having somewhere to go at night, "because it keeps us off the streets and from causing trouble".

Roger Pope, principal of Kingsbridge community college, who has backed the idea from the start, says: "My Year 8s went to the Dome and had a few hours' enjoyment. But if you think how our local project touches people's day-to-day lives, and then total up the generations of young people who will benefit, this is of incalculably higher value."

The commission has worked in four areas. The Millennium Experience (the Dome) and Millennium Festival (a year-long series of celebrations) are already sailing into history. Millennium Projects, however, which has put pound;1.3 billion into almost 3,000 sites, and Millennium People, which has allocated pound;200 million to give individuals a chance to develop their ideas, will leave a lasting impression.

The commission's investment programme was conceived as a pyramid. At the top is the Dome, followed by showpiece projects such as Tate Modern, which has been supported to the tune of pound;50 million. The gallery is forging ahead with a broad-ranging education programme for both children - 40,000 of whom have passed though its doors since September - and teachers. "We aim to become a national Inset centre and a leading thinktank about gallery education," says Helen Charman, curator of the schools programme.

Other major projects include multi-million pound specialist and regional developments (see box), many of which are focused on making an aspect of science or technology more accessible.

The next rung down is local projects, often related to conservation and regeneration. In this category, for example, is a development of the harbourside at Whitehaven, in Cumbria, once the third largest harbour in the country but now in decline. The Renaissance of Whitehaven project includes an exhibition telling the story of the UK rum industry. It examines the slave trade, prohibition in the United States, and the use of rum in the Navy.

The project has an education centre, which has welcomed more than 1,000 students in the six months since it opened last summer. It caters for every level of learning, from key stage 1 pupils to university students.

Across the country, in another neglected area, the Green Quay, in King's Lynn, Norfolk, an environmental exhibition centre about the Wash and the Fens has sprung up. Located in an old warehouse, it offers schools a two-hour visit, taking in key stage 2 science, geography and maths. It will also expand its education work in the humanities, arts and technology, and adult and outdoor education.

The centre's education officer, Clare London, says nothing like it has been available to schools in the area before. "We've had excellent feedback. Most groups say they wish they could stay much longer," she says.

Others projects are investing in knowledge, rather than buildings. In Scotland, a University of the Highlands and Islands is being set up by linking education institutions, businesses and lifelong learning schemes. And the Scottish Cultural Resources Access Network is in the middle of an ambitious scheme to tell the history of Scotland - from pre-history to the oil industry - on a series of CD-Roms and the Internet. "About 70 per cent of schools in Scotland are already signed up," says Andy Freeman, project officer, who says the scheme will include resources to help teachers navigate their way through the information, and prepare lessons.

At the base of the pyramid is a huge spread of tiny projects. These range from the pound;10 million invested in the Halls for the 21st Century scheme - under which 163 village halls have been rebuilt or refurbished, allowing many to start offering after-school clubs, adult education lectures, IT centres, playschools, and university outreach classes - to the Millennium Centres project, run by the National Playing Fields Association, which provides education and recreation facilities in nine deprived urban areas. These include centres in Washington, Tyne and Wear, which has a library and space for excluded pupils to meet their tutors, and Sandwell, West Midlands, which has an IT suite and runs an adult education programme.

"It's a different way of thinking about community provision," says Alison Moore Gwyn, chairman of the National Playing Fields Association, "because the idea is that, in the end, they will all be run by local community development trusts."

Then there are the Millennium People awards, which have so far offered 12,000 individuals between pound;2,000 and pound;15,000 each, and will continue to operate with a pound;100 million fund after the commission is wound up.

Most of these awards have been administered through charities such as Age Concern and the Pre-School Learning Alliance. They have helped people set up workshops, make videos, carry out research, and establish environmental and community projects.

In Leeds, a community service volunteer (CSV) award enabled 17-year-old Chris Barley to develop a wildlife and conservation area at Garforth community college. He has since helped other local schools carry out similar projects.

In Birmingham, Gavin Brown, a sign-language-user and computer science student, used his CSV award to set up a youth club to bring deaf and hearing children together. "I wanted to try to help them understand each other, and I could see there was a need," he says. "I think it's the only club of its sort in this part of Birmingham."

Many teachers have won awards. Liz Mills, of Bishop Loveday school, in Bodicote, near Banbury, Oxfordshire, received funding to offer primary school teachers a term out to research the teaching of religious education. "I was based at Homerton College, Cambridge, and worked to clarify what we mean when we talk about spirituality in schools," she says. The grants have allowed her and fellow award-winners to "recoup and regroup", to come back to teaching refreshed, she adds.

Cynics might argue that visitor attractions are gimmicky; research grants self-indulgent; community projects vague and unaccountable; and why wait for a new millennium before splashing the cash anyway? But talk to those involved and there is no disputing their enthusiasm or the forward-thinking behind many of the projects.

Where there have been hiccups, the commission has offered support and helped to plug gaps in the web of investment. When it became clear that few minority organisations were coming forward for grants, the commission solicited applications from black groups, offering development grants to help shape ideas into working proposals.

One result has been a pound;150,000 grant towards a planned Stephen Lawrence Technocenter in south London. This will commemorate the murdered teenager by encouraging minority students into architecture and environmental design. Stephen had ambitions to become an architect.

The centre is scheduled to open in New Cross in 2003, offering courses and workshops, as well as space for new businesses, a shop, cafe and cr che. It will be only a few miles from the Dome, but a world away from its ethos; like countless other beneficiaries of the Millennium Commission's less visible work, it will be a practical project aiming to meet a real need.


* pound;30 million allocated to the Millennium Seed Bank, near Haywards Heath, West Sussex, to collect and freeze a data bank of plant seeds, and set up a visitor centre and training programme.

* pound;30 million to the Norwich and Norfolk Millennium Project, which includes a library, and a business and learning centre, to regenerate central Norwich.

* pound;31 million to the International Centre for Life, a genetics-based visitor centre and research facility in Newcastle upon Tyne.

* pound;35 million to Our Dynamic Earth, a visitor centre featuring geological exhibits in Edinburgh (pictured).

* pound;35 million to the Glasgow Science Centre, which includes a planetarium, exhibitions and an Imax theatre.

* pound;38 million to the Renaissance of Portsmouth Harbour project.

* pound;40 million for the Earth Centre at Denaby Main, in South Yorkshire, a visitor attraction supporting research into sustainability.

* pound;43 million to the National Cycle Network, to develop traffic-free cycle paths and traffic calming schemes.

* pound;44 million to @Bristol, an urban regeneration project, including the Explore and Wildscreen scientific visitor attractions.

* pound;45 million to the Odyssey Project, an education, sporting and entertainment complex in Belfast.

* pound;46 million to the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff.

* pound;50 million to Millennium Point, Birmingham, a centre of technology and learning, including the University of the First Age learning experience for 90,000 young students in the West Midlands.

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