Now the surgeon is Able to learn about plumbing

A week in the life of... Dr Chris Jude, director of Lifelong Learning at Lewisham College
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On a research trip to Berlin recently I discovered that German children all receive an einschulungstute - a paper cone filled with sweets - on their first day at school. At Lewisham College [south London], we wanted the same idea of marking the start of a process of learning to launch our new free education and training courses for people working in our area, but we had goody bags full of college products and vouchers instead. The first went to the police chief inspector, who is planning to take a counselling course so that when he retires from the force he can become an education social worker.

The whole idea of our project, called Action for Better Lewisham Employees, or Able, is to give people working in the public sector the chance to take any qualification they like at the college for free. Many of them go for computing and IT classes or languages, to help with jobs or in getting promotion, but there are lots of more surprising combinations, too - we have one surgeon who wants to take a plumbing course.

I spent last week launching Able with each of the various groups taking part - the hospital trust, the local authority, the police. The police, whom you might expect to be fairly cynical, were really enthusiastic, although one did say he wished his bosses had laid on some beer. Because they generally retire earlier than most of us, police officers have a chance of a second career and our scheme, which is unique as far as we know, gives them a chance to prepare for that. A fair number also want to take courses in signing [for the deaf], because they find they need that skill in their job. One officer at the launch said he was worried he might find a course difficult because he worked shifts, but then he disappeared for two hours and came back beaming, saying that he had checked through his rota and needed to miss only one class.

We also had a visit from the head of the police canteen, who brought in all the canteen workers because they were too shy to come along themselves. The great thing about offering free courses is that it encourages people to have a think about their hopes and what they really want to do, and that gives them confidence. So much is aimed at the unemployed, but people in work need to learn new skills too, particularly if the job market is difficult, as it is in this part of London. They also start planning future careers, and thinking about how they can requalify - one of the policemen had an ambition to be a sound engineer so we signed him up for a course.

By the end of the launches, we had reached about 1,000 people, and signed up around half of them. Then there was also our midsummer fair, where we had 21 different programme areas demonstrating different activities. In just two hours, we had the bricklayers build a flower bed, the plasterers made a lion's head fountain in the middle, the plumbers put water through the lion's mouth and then the horticulturists filled the bed with flowers.

It was a fantastic example of students saying not "look at this piece of paper I've earned", but "look at what I can actually do".

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