Education: Mine's a pint and a GCSE, please

A group of Derbyshire villagers show how students can acceptably spend all their time in the pub.
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The Independent Online
From the ancient village of Brassington, in the Derbyshire Peak District, stretches a view of some of the loveliest walking country in England. Day-trippers come to gaze at the wide horizon, the green hills dotted with sheep, and the higgledy piggledy patchwork quilt of dry stone walls. Hikers arrive at The Miners' Arms gasping for a drink, unaware that upstairs in a cubbyhole an extraordinary educational experiment is taking place.

The pub has become one of the latest outposts in the University of Derby's attempt to bring education to the people. It is what the Government's favourite education buzz-phrase, lifelong learning, is all about - taking courses to adults who missed out on education first-time round, or who want to update their skills. What makes it possible is the new technology.

In the cubbyhole over the pub is a computer with keyboard and a video- conferencing link, which means each student can have an individual tutorial with a tutor they can see and be seen by. In the bar downstairs, they record the date and time of their next tutorial. That way they will be sure the pub is open for them. They can also skim through a file which lists what's on offer - information technology, accounting, management, tele-working, book-keeping, A-level psychology and law, GCSE English language and French.

These are the courses that the villagers chose when they were asked. Twenty-eight have signed up for the "training club" since the project began last October, their ages ranging from 18 to 58. The hope is they will become turned on to learning, moving on to other courses or even enrolling for a part-time degree. The signs are propitious. "Learning is becoming integrated into pub life," says Kay Price, the head of projects at the University of Derby. "We did not want to come in and do things to this village. We wanted to create the right framework for learning to blossom."

The courses at Brassington are provided by High Peak College in Buxton, a further education college which has merged with the university. None of the students pay a penny because funding comes from the European Union. Despite the gorgeous scenery, the Peak District is judged a low- wage, low-skill area in need of help. Mining has died out; quarrying employs few people; hill farmers have been hard hit by BSE and the collapse of the price of lamb; and manufacturing has mostly gone.

One of the barriers to higher and further education has been the narrow, winding roads. The residents don't like the thought of travelling. Not all have cars anyway, and the bus comes only once a day. That's why the tutors have had to go to them.

All of which fits into the way the university has always seen itself - as serving the local area and region first, and a wider audience second. "The slogan is `We take the product to the people'," says the Vice-chancellor, Roger Waterhouse. "We're trying to serve the rural population. In lifelong learning, we see the distinction between higher and further education as artificial and irrelevant to the community and local industry."

Waterhouse has a strong supporter in Sir Christopher Ball, the university Chancellor and former principal of Keble College, Oxford. What makes Derby such an interesting university to be associated with, says Sir Christopher, is its wish to start with the learner rather than the course or the learning. That is in contrast to a traditional university such as Oxbridge. "The university I served for so long, Oxford, defined itself in terms of the teaching and the courses and then said: `Well, I suppose we have to find some students'."

A former institute of higher education, Derby is a "new" university with a different clientele from traditional universities. Its students are not the kind who routinely take three A-levels at age 18, and then a three- year degree course which sets them up for life. That's an out-of-date model, according to Waterhouse. Derby's students enter higher education later (more than half are over 21 when they arrive) and a degree doesn't set them up for life. Instead, after graduation, many move on to the local further education college to take low-level courses which help them get a job.

Knowing this, the university decided to develop a local credit accumulation and transfer system, the Derbyshire Regional Network, together with a clutch of FE colleges. They are the only group of education institutions in England to do so, although they claim that Northern Ireland and Wales are following their lead. They had two objectives: to make it easier for local people to enter higher education; and to break down the further education curriculum into modules, enabling joint teaching of differing qualifications.

The result is a comprehensive education and training system from the age of 16 onwards, enabling students to study at a time, place and pace that they choose and to transfer credit across local colleges and the university. Based on what are called learning outcomes (what the course has taught you to do), it means that students successfully completing a credit in, say, textiles, can justifiably claim to employers that they can actually make a fabric; and students passing a module in advocacy will actually know how an industrial tribunal works.

That enables learners to know what's expected of them; and employers and others can see what they've achieved. In addition, the system is extremely flexible. It gives students a lot of choice. They can take almost any set of combinations and fit their studies around their families and their work because so much can be covered using the new technology.

The campus university is an out-of-date 20th-century concept, according to Waterhouse. It has been superseded by a system tailor-made for the new millennium, delivering to a number of "outcentres" scattered around the region. People want their learning in bite-sized chunks, he says, they want to accumulate those chunks and they want the material to be easily available. "It doesn't mean doing everything by distance learning. It does mean giving them the human support they need," he adds.

Other outcentres or training clubs in Derbyshire include a couple of rooms above a shopping precinct in Bakewell, a tele-working centre in Hope Valley and a cyber cafe in Matlock. The smallest is Brassington. "If you can do it in Brassington, you can do it anywhere," says Waterhouse.

Given the effort Derby has put into lifelong learning, he is amazed that the Government has so neglected the role universities can play. Perhaps ministers are ignorant about this. Perhaps they have simply forgotten.

Voices from the Community, a conference organised by the northern network of HEFCE-funded widening provision projects, is at Leeds Metropolitan University on 23 April. E-mail I.HUNJAN@LMU.AC.UK


ANGELA BUDENBERG, 34, is slaving over a spreadsheet on her computer screen in the cubbyhole above The Miners' Arms in Brassington, wondering what she has done wrong.

However, she doesn't have to wonder for long, because on another computer screen is her tutor, Karen Smith, beamed over a video-link from High Peak College, Buxton, part of the University of Derby. They can eyeball one another in technicolour and both have access to the same data on the screens in front of them. When Angela needs a demonstration, Karen takes control of the mouse.

The qualification Angela is taking is called Integrated Business Technology Stage II. She is doing it to learn how to use her computer more effectively.

Not that she needs the skills to find a job, as she already works as an air-hostess, on a job-share basis with Britannia Airways. At the same time, she is undertaking a MSc degree at Cranfield School of Management, having already achieved a first degree in psychology at the University of Luton. She squeezes all this into her life in Brassington, where she lives with her husband, a pilot, and four-year-old daughter.

Most of the other students using the Brassington outcentre don't have degrees. Many have not even touched a computer before. Mrs Smith, an IT lecturer, believes most have signed up to improve their employment prospects. "A lot of students are shy about doing a computer course in the first place," she says. "As long as the learning materials are suitable, and they have the learning support, they find they can progress quite quickly."

Sandra Thorpe, 53, landlady of The Miners' Arms, is taking a basic IT course and wishes she had more time to devote to it. She decided to take the course out of interest. "I just wanted to know how to use computers," she says.

Now Sandra is an enthusiastic convert to the scheme. One of its great merits is the one-to-one nature of the tuition. "A lot of people feel it's intimidating to go back into a classroom when they've reached a certain age," she says. "You think you're going to be the oldest woman there, and that you're going to be seen as stupid. None of the tutors here have made us feel that. It's a question of learning a bit more each time and building that up."

Other students include an 18-year-old woman taking GCSE English, a subject she missed out on at school, and a 58-year-old man learning basic IT who wants to keep up with the new technology.