Working out at night school

The machines at the Link FITness club are not for pumping iron, as Dorothy Walker finds out
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Indy Lifestyle Online
"We've had women in tears on the machine. If it happens, we have tea and a chat about the weather, then we try again. It's like a bike - once you fall off, you have to get straight back on again." Anne Good runs the Link FITness Club (IT for information technology), in Bushey, Hertfordshire. But her "machines" are not for pumping iron - they're PCs, available to people who want to pump up their computer know-how. I went along to find out how the non-technical cope with the world of software and hard drives ...

3:30pm: Arrive at Queen's School, Bushey, where the club, run by Link Training, a private firm specialising in IT, is based. Anne Good and her assistant, Lesley Vowles, explain the form. Link Training has loaned 16 sleek PCs and a plethora of CD-Roms to the school. Pupils use them during the day, and Link runs the club for the public after hours. The club code of practice is, "The centre is for work and study only". Agree to this, and you pay pounds 23 per month for unlimited access to machines and learning material. You work at your own pace, when it suits you, with support from the staff.

4pm: Half an hour after the children have gone home, the FITness club is in full swing. Charles Gray, a solicitor, shows me a sheet of paper that he has lovingly pressed between the pages of his Word for Windows manual. It contains a list of quotations, each in a different typeface. "Producing this was one of the proudest moments of my life," he says. "Six months ago, I was so ignorant about computers that after a day at a trade show I came away thinking WordStar and WordPerfect were machines. I had to get into the computer age, even though my generation can get away with not doing it."

With two courses under his belt, on beginners' computing and word-processing, Charles has installed PCs in his high-street practice. As he works at the keyboard he explains that computers carry a stigma. "Some people think you get minions to type for you. That's why I led from the front - I came here first, and then I enrolled all my staff."

Beside him, Jason Puddephat, from Hartsmere Leisure Centres, is doing practical exercises as part of a course on the Access database. He built Hartsmere's personnel database, and tonight he is - well, practising building a database. "Originally, I taught myself, but I want to make sure I'm doing it right," he says. "You can get yourself in a terrible mess."

5pm: Julia Elliot arrives with her teenage daughter Louise. Anne goes to help them to make a start. "I've forgotten where I am, I don't think I have the aptitude for computers," says Julia. "Just think of all you've learnt in the past four weeks," Anne replies.

Mrs Elliot says she didn't mean to get involved in all this. She only came along to enrol Louise, who wanted word-processing skills for her gap year before higher education. Anne happened to say: "We have people here who don't know how to switch on a computer." When Mrs Elliot confessed she was like that, Anne persuaded her to come. First task was to play on-screen Solitaire, to learn to use the mouse. Louise confides that despite protestations, her mum is going great guns.

5:30pm: Sue and Liz, from from nearby Garston Manor Rehabilitation Centre, arrive on reconnaissance. They want to bring their staff's computer skills up to speed, and considered in-house training, but everyone is at a different level. "So you know everything about everything, do you?" Sue asks Anne. "No," says Anne. "Nobody does."

Anne explains that she can assess each person's level of knowledge, and that corporate membership works out at pounds 25 per person per month. Sue and Liz study Anne's prices carefully, and prepare the ground for negotiation. These skills will prove useful when they go on to investigate formal courses - the going market rate is anything up to pounds 500 per person per day.

6pm: I ask Ellard, a retail sales executive for Camelot, why he is here. "My wife told me to come," he laughs. His wife is a self-taught computer ace. "She experiments to find out how to do things. I was scared to do that - I have to know everything before I start. Here I can go through things at my own pace. I teach shop assistants how to use the lottery computers. Sometimes they are frightened - I know how they feel and can reassure them."

7pm: Nick, a maintenance engineer, is building a Powerpoint slide show that would put most corporate presentations to shame. He doesn't expect to use these skills at work - it's that, having bought a computer for his children, he found he couldn't answer their questions. In eight weeks here he has whizzed through an introductory course, plus Word and Powerpoint. What's next? "I'll try the Internet. My brother-in-law is on it, and women keep trying to pick him up."

The club's youngest member, 11-year-old Katrina Binks, arrives with her father. "Have you got anything in French?" he asks Lesley. "Basic skills?" "Definitely."

I watch as father and daughter work together on the PC. Club rules say that all children must be accompanied, but Mr Binks hasn't come just as chaperone. He guides Katrina through the software, pausing to test and prompt her. "Katrina is having trouble with some subjects," he says. "Our approach is to come here for at least an hour a week, to do odd, fun exercises. We try to link them with school - she has been doing French today." He explains that he might buy a home computer eventually, but wants to avoid it becoming just a games machine. "Doing it this way, the time is rationed, so we plan ahead and pack the work in."

7:30: Jan Collins arrives from a parents' evening, and gets straight into Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing. "I'm going through a divorce, and I want a job," she says. "Every job I see, I think `I could do that', but it needs computer skills." As her skill and nerve increased ("I always thought that if you pressed the wrong button, you could wipe everything out, but it's not like that"), she saved up for a second-hand computer. "I've become obsessed - I even practise while the kids are getting ready for school."

Recently, Jan went to her first interview, for a job as a doctor's receptionist. She beat 110 applicants through to the second stage. "This place has given me confidence," she says. "I'm fed up of people thinking you're thick if you don't know anything about computers."

I leave Jan and Lesley deep in discussion about computers, careers and confidence. In the corner, Nick the maintenance engineer is typing like a man possessed.

Link Training is on 0151-327 8080. There are four FITness clubs in England and Wales, and more are planned.