Education: We are making inroads into unemployment

Learning account
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The Independent Online
Chris Peat runs a family learning centre housed in a former school in a deprived part of Leeds. The centre, which has just won a European award, offers courses in subjects from line-dancing to new technology to encourage local people to return to education and training.

They say Leeds is a city with a two-speed economy where the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. It's true that unemployment is dropping in the city as a whole - it's now six per cent - whereas here in Seacroft it's double that.

What we are starting to do is make inroads into that through centres like this one.

The family centre, which is run by Leeds City Council, opened in July 1996 in the buildings of East Leeds High, which had closed the previous summer. It's a glass and concrete Fifties building that needed a lot of refurbishment, but we started with some classrooms, a computer centre and a canteen. We sent out 25,000 leaflets direct to local homes, and the response was amazing - we had over 1,000 students through the doors and most of those have stayed.

The key was to get over the wariness adults here often have of coming back to education when they have often left at 16 or younger. To get to a local further education college means a two- or three-bus journey - we provide courses run by three colleges but all on one familiar site close to people's homes. We have also kept to the principle that every course should be free.

After a year and a half we have more than doubled our number of students, 700 of them from Seacroft, which is not a traditional market for further education. We get a real mix of people - some come into the centre having had a long period away from any employment but just lack that basic confidence and knowledge of the way the world has changed. We use our key skills unit to try and get people back in touch with that.

We are also getting people coming through the traditional method of fairly low-key activities such as line-dancing, because it is still quite difficult for people to cross the threshold into learning. I know someone who did line-dancing last year and is now doing courses in English and German.

Other students have, quite rightly, deduced that information technology skills are critical in the employment market, or want to get to grips with computers so they can help their kids.

If you walk round the centre, you'll find it buzzing every day and evening from Monday to Thursday, and busy on Fridays and Saturdays as well. You might come across some year 10 and 11 pupils from our local family of schools who we bring here to introduce them to a college environment at an earlier age and encourage them to stay on in education after 16.

You would find students busy in our electronics lab, fashion workshop, catering kitchen and art and design rooms. We're also running programmes which link people up with large local employers such as the Halifax Building Society. We try to start with employers and find out exactly what they want so we can be sure we are equipping students with the right skills.

Last week, we learnt that the Government has named us as the British representative of a European Commission scheme called Second Chance Schools for our work motivating 16- to 24-year-olds to return to learning. It's a wonderful reward because, frankly, if no one had walked through the door this could all have been a great white elephant. Instead, it is the lovely, vibrant place it is today.