Learning account: Coalface to chalk face: retraining ex-miners

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Steve Brunt is director of the Coalfield Learning Project, which educates and trains former mineworkers in South and West Yorkshire. He talks to about his efforts in co-ordinating the Coalfield Learning and Initiative Partnerships, an association of similar projects across the former coalfields of England and Wales.

Ten or fifteen years ago, there were 60,000 miners working across the Yorkshire coalfield, and for every miner's job, they say, there were two supporting jobs. By the time the last pit closed in 1992 all those jobs had gone, and unemployment is still as high as 40 per cent in some areas.

The aim of our project, which we piloted in 1994 in Grimethorpe and has now been extended to five authorities in South and West Yorkshire, was to offer former mine-workers and their families tailor-made education or training, and advice to help them back into employment. The project is a partnership between Northern College, near Barnsley, where I am a senior lecturer, and Sheffield Hallam University, with sponsorship from private companies, support from the local authorities and training and enterprise councils, and funding from Europe.

From the first, the scheme has worked well. We talked to the community and were accepted, which was important. I and my colleague David Hunter are both ex-miners, and the trust and understanding that built up almost immediately was crucial to the success of the project.

We offer courses in the college, but also pride ourselves on going out to former mining villages and other communities to provide the bespoke training people tell us they want. We go to pubs and institutes, if that is where we are invited. We run confidence-building courses, and sessions on team-building and fundraising to allow local groups to help themselves.

The task is to find answers to the $64,000 question in adult education: how do you get men back into education and training, in particular men who have spent their working lives in labour-intensive, male-dominated industries, with all the machismo that goes with mining? Their experience of the classroom up to age 15 may not have been good, and they do not all want to return.

Where we succeed, it is satisfying to see someone who has been unemployed for two or three years, and has become one of the socially excluded, start to develop and understand for themselves. They say: "I never knew about this; I never knew these opportunities were here. Why didn't somebody tell me?" Once they start to read and get into different subjects, there is such a sense of discovery.

I understand that experience myself. I was quite happy when, back in 1983 I was working three shifts a week on the coal face at Markham Colliery in Derbyshire. I was being paid well and thinking that was my future. Then I went on a course aimed at equipping union representatives with negotiating skills, and ended up taking a degree at Sheffield Polytechnic when I was made redundant in 1990.

Our coalfield project, and others in former mining communities in South Wales and the East Midlands, are now linked by Clip - Coalfield Learning and Initiative Partnerships. We presented our work last week to coalfields MPs, and John Prescott's Coalfields Taskforce will hear more about it when it meets tomorrow.