Learning account: A train going nowhere promises to rescue a region

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The Independent Online
Rural areas offer little in the way of jobs, or chances to obtain extra qualifications.

Trudy Ralph, manager of the Appleby Heritage Centre in Cumbria, describes a novel way of combining skills training with an extra amenity for the locals.

"Our three railway carriages stand on a piece of track next to the former goods shed, just a couple of minutes' ride from Appleby railway station on the Settle to Carlisle line, where they used to run. We were given them by Eversholt Leasing for pounds 1 plus VAT, so we have been able to put all our funding into a project to refurbish them and give them a new lease of life.

Our idea was to involve local people in preserving something of value, and to link that with training and qualifications. In a rural area such as Cumbria we suffer all the typical problems of limited transport and lack of access to training, so we wanted to provide opportunities closer to home.

The carriages, which date from the Seventies and formerly belonged to Midlands Railway, are being refurbished by trainees in exchange for free training in the skills involved: metalwork, woodwork, painting and upholstery. The first was completed within two months, and has been turned into an information technology suite and meeting-centre. All the seats and tables were ripped out and replaced with specially designed desks and chairs set at an angle to the sides; we wanted to make sure that people would be able to talk to each other, despite the narrowness of the space.

The second carriage is being turned into a cafe for visitors, while also being a base for catering training, and the third is a "utility vehicle" which we will use for tourism displays linked to the National Curriculum.

We are offering training to a whole range of people, including school pupils, young people looking for qualifications, women returning to education, and businesses wanting to update their employees' skills.

From September, we have begun running general national vocational qualifications in business and engineering for two local high schools. Until now, sixth- form-age students in the area essentially had to choose between taking

A-levels at school or travelling 40 miles to college in Kendal or Carlisle to study vocational subjects. There was no opportunity to mix and match academic and vocational courses, in the way Sir Ron Dearing recommended in his report on 16-19 qualifications. Now, schools pay us a contribution and run GNVQs with us. The idea is that we widen opportunities in this rural area, and stop the brain drain out of the region.

Once the young people are qualified, we hope there will be local companies able to employ them. We offer business advice and start-up grants and try to tailor skills training to employment opportunities in the area, such as farming and tourism.

Developing the heritage centre is taking time, but it has the advantage of being a place that really stimulates people. As well as the carriages, we have offices and workshops in the 19th-century goods shed, which used to house livestock bound for the auction nearby. The beautiful Eden Valley, where we are based, is more or less the hidden Lake District. If we can develop jobs and training, there will be every reason for people to stay in the area."