Ellie Levenson and Kate Hilpern take a closer look at how further education colleges are widening their appeal

Engaging people who would traditionally turn a blind eye to education has long been a key objective for colleges. When the Government recently announced that it wants to keep young people in education or training until they are 18, all hell broke loose in the media. But while most news reports responded to the suggestion from Alan Johnson, Education Secretary, by exploring what it would mean to raise the school leaving age to 18, the reality is that it is colleges - not schools - who are more likely to rise to the challenge.

With courses available in subjects ranging from water sports to stage make-up and from conservation management to forklift truck driving, it's little wonder that colleges boast endless examples of how they have attracted people who would not traditionally be interested in education. In many cases, courses are created with the sole purpose of appealing to groups of people who have historically turned their nose up at classrooms.

Take Gateshead, where 77 per cent of adults who take part in training are women. The gender imbalance within adult learning is a common problem across the UK, but Gateshead decided to do something about it, resulting in the Penumbra Project, funded by the Learning and Skills Council (LSC).

Quite simply, men found it hard to resist the six new courses ranging from how to be a radio presenter and music downloading, which speak for themselves, to bushcraft, which provides a chance to go back to nature and discover how to apply traditional survival techniques to today's lifestyle. Similarly, the family cart challenge enables families to work together using basic design principles to construct go-carts, which are then pitted against each other in a spectacular race finale. Meanwhile, morphing and digi-pictures focuses on the latest techniques to generate and edit digital pictures, while online security is a beginners' guide to keeping your computer safe from viruses, theft and spies.

"This is the first time I have ever enrolled on an adult learning course of any kind," says Eric Grimshaw, 59, from Birtley, who signed up for the family carting course. "But this particular course really appealed as it was something practical and interesting that I could do with my two grandsons, Daniel and Antony. We have all really enjoyed the course, and my grandsons in particular treasure the cart we have made. Now we're looking forward to racing it in the course finale next week. Although I would never have considered adult learning before, this has sparked my interest and I would certainly consider signing up for another course in the future."

Grimshaw is not alone. Not only were virtually all the available places on the six courses filled within days of being marketed, but of the 65 men taking part, more than half are now going on to complete other adult learning courses in colleges such as Gateshead.

An even harder-to-reach group of people, when it comes to education, are the homeless. "It's difficult to contact them with traditional marketing tools," explains Sue Pilbeam, community outreach manager at South East Derbyshire College, a small college with just over 10,000 students. "We do lots of our marketing with a prospectus but there's the problem, for example, of how you get this to people without a permanent address."

Three years ago South East Derbyshire College decided to tap into the knowledge of people - mainly in the voluntary sector - who do know how to contact such groups, and form official links with them. Now there are several learning brokers working between the college and the homeless. One such example is the Amber Valley Foyer, which provides homes, support and a springboard to independent living for homeless young people. The key, this organisation has learned, not only lies in funding (the project helps cover travel costs, childcare, exam fees and learning materials for participants) but in presenting learning as part of the solution to their clients' problems. "It's about convincing new learners that learning can be fun and not intimidating or tedious," adds Pilbream.

Another critical factor in the project's success has been widening the range of learning locations. Gone is the expectation to sit in classrooms - which, for many, conjures up bad memories from school days - with courses now being provided in a number of community locations such as church halls, day centres or organisations' own premises. Pilbream says this is also important for other traditionally disengaged groups that the college works with - such as women living in refuges and parents of young children. "We've learned that it works to take learning out into the community, rather than always expect people to come to us."

She adds that you have to teach people to walk before they can run. "It might be something quite small like a day course in felt making and it's unlikely any participants will go on to have a career in this. Some people in widening participation think there should be a logical progression through courses, but sometimes people just need to be engaged in learning to give a feeling of self worth, self belief and confidence."

She points to one group of mothers of children under five years old who had been out of employment for some time. They became so encouraged by a creative writing class that, with the help of the college, they published a book of short stories for children. "We start small with things like greetings cards and progress to writing stories." These were then translated into Romanian and some of the authors took copies over to distribute in a Romanian school, which encourages the integration of disabled children into mainstream education. "The trip," says Pilbeam, "was amazing for them and really boosted their confidence as they never dreamed they could have done anything like it."

There's no doubt that the Government's plans to keep young people in education and training will face a number of challenges. But anyone looking for innovative examples of how to keep people in, rather than out of, education, could do worse than a visit to their local college.

'The PDA has helped me apply for more jobs'

Mobile phones, Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) and other technology are often a pain in the neck for teachers in the classroom, whose lessons are disturbed by a seemingly never-ending series of rings and bleeps. But for Pembrokeshire College in rural Wales (pictured above), they are proving an excellent tool for motivating and supporting disengaged young adults who are not in education, employment or training, enabling tutors and students to stay in touch through text, voicemail, e-mail and the internet.

"The PDA that the college has provided me with has allowed me to phone a lot more employers than I could have afforded on my own budget. I have also had unlimited access to helpful internet sites like driving theory practice questions, job search sites, and many more that have helped me in my career choice," says one student. "With help from my tutor I have gained the confidence and many skills to contact employers and go to interviews. I have had lots of help updating my CV and writing cover letters which have helped me apply for better jobs."

The "mlearning" project (m stands for mobile), which supplies a PDA as well as a bluetooth keyboard to everyone who becomes an mlearner, states its aim as giving young people the opportunities to break through their barriers to learning and fulfil their potential through a flexible, innovative and high quality learning programme.

"The mlearning project has been a real positive hook for our young people," says Sue Edwards of the Over 15s Service. "They want to engage with the learning because the offer of a loan of a PDA is a real incentive. It motivates them to learning through a new medium. They are keen to use the technology and find it empowering to be responsible for expensive kit."