Car workers rediscover joy of self-improvement: Courses feed a traditional hunger for education at Ford's Welsh engine plant. Barrie Clement reports

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THERE was a time in Wales when everyone aspired to be a preacher or a teacher.

The saviour of the industrial proletariat was seen to be education. Beatification was achieved by securing a Bachelor of Arts degree, canonisation by a doctorate.

At Ford's plant in Bridgend on the coastal plain at the base of the South Wales valleys and in the age of the video and Sky Television, the old religion prospers.

Nearly half of the 1,600 workers are on educational courses provided by the company under its Employee Development and Assistance Programme (Edap). It is the highest participation rate among the company's main manufacturing plants in Britain and, in the slightly self-mocking tones of Ryland Evans, employee relations manager, such cerebral endeavour 'sits quite comfortably with us Welsh'.

Lest there be any hint of racial triumphalism, it is pointed out, however, that 'even' Roy Godier, the English manager of the plant, has embarked on a course of self-improvement. Despite a lack of interest among his Celtic subordinates, Mr Godier is attempting to pick his way through the thicket of consonants that infect the Welsh tongue.

The courses are designed in response to the wishes of the workforce and range from lawn-propagation to GCSEs, from courses in conversational German to instruction in t'ai chi.

The committee that presides over the pounds 88,000 programme, however, drew the line at a group application for bungee jumping. 'What were they going to learn by jumping off bridges?' asked Gerwyn Lloyd, deputy union convenor and no soft touch when he chaired the Edap committee. An application for a course in 'paint-ball combat' was also laughed out of court. 'A bit like paying someone to go to the funfair,' Mr Lloyd said.

At the more serious end of the spectrum, Anthony Hawes gained an upper second class degree in inorganic chemistry at the Open University. He is now preparing a PhD thesis at University College Swansea - a quantum educational leap from his work on the production line.

Another 10 of his former colleagues at the engine plant are on Open University courses or about to embark on them. Most are studying technical subjects, but some are reading for degrees in social sciences and the arts.

Paul Warren, a 22-year-old assembly worker who left school at 17, has been working his way through the GCSE syllabus. Over the last three years he got a C grade in history, a B in human biology and is awaiting the result of his maths paper due out next month.

'I was a bit shaky to begin with, but once I got going I found it very addictive. I hope I'm giving myself a bit of grounding for the future. Something to fall back on. I want to see how far I can go.' Mr Warren, a single man, wants to do A-levels next.

A combination of heated pub arguments and a lawn with disagreeable bald patches stimulated John Ryan's quest for knowledge. A 38-year-old driver who delivers parts to the production line, he is about to complete his fourth course in horticulture. After completing another six, he is planning to take a Royal Horticultural Society certificate.

Married with one daughter, he attends evening classes at a nearby college where many of the Edap courses are run. 'Now when there's an argument over gardening in the pub at least I know what I'm talking about,' he said.

Some workers who left school without qualifications find the idea of undertaking some form of learning a daunting prospect, Andrew Davies, co-ordinator of the scheme, said.

In fact Andy Richards, the plant's union convenor, pointed out that in some cases people had difficulty in reading and writing. 'That was a delicate matter that could only be addressed through a rapport that has been built up within the plant.' Mr Richards believes the high degree of support for Edap at Bridgend grew partly out of an existing spirit of co-operation between the company and its employees - a relationship it has reinforced, he said. The committee running the scheme is made up of manual workers, clerical staff and management. The chair is rotated among the three groups.

Committee members believe the high participation rate compared with plants like Dagenham is partly because many workers live relatively near the plant. As elsewhere, a higher proportion of white-collar workers sign up than manual colleagues; courses tend to fit in more easily with office hours. Linda Berry, 40, and Caryl Inskip, 34, from the personnel department, for instance, are both on courses in conversational French. Ms Inskip believes that some of her colleagues are put off because they think it will be like going back to the 'parrot-learning' they experienced at school, 'but it's not like that at all'. They point out that language teaching at school was 'useless' in preparing them to speak to the French on holiday. Ms Inskip has also taken courses in hanging baskets, skiing, swimming and conversational German.

But the enthusiasm is by no means restricted to office staff, 45-year-old Spencer Richards, who left secondary modern when he was 15, having just failed to win a grammar school place, said: 'You've got to watch it or you go brain dead when you start work.'

Mr Richards has attended classes in hanging baskets and computers.

'I suppose for some of the younger blokes it could be a gateway to other jobs,' he said.

(Photographs omitted)