Will study bring harmony?

Since the riots of 2001, Burnley College has used its position in the community to spread tolerance, writes Neil Merrick
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The Independent Online

Thousands of people will gather in Burnley this weekend to discover the fun - and value - of learning. A major festival organised by Burnley College, the borough council and a host of community organisations will introduce youngsters and adults to everything from break dancing to glass-blowing.

Just under two years ago, when students returned to the college after the summer holidays, the town was reeling from the effects of the riots that had taken place two months earlier.

As the assistant principal, Julian Clissold, recalls, the first reaction of the college was to discover whether its students were all right (which they were), and its second was to look at how the college could help to improve community relations so that the disturbances were not repeated. In many ways, this weekend's Reach1: Burnley People's Festival represents the culmination of two years' hard work by college staff and community leaders to place learning at the heart of social cohesion.

Burnley College had already introduced a community strategy in the late Nineties. From early 2001, community learning representatives were appointed in three of the most deprived areas of the Lancashire town to try to reach more potential students. After the disturbances, says Clissold, the college decided that learning could be delivered more effectively if more decisions were taken at a community level rather than in the college itself.

"We didn't want just to be the direct provider of community education," he says. "Instead, we worked through voluntary organisations, and helped them to develop the capacity to deliver."

Lynne Fishwick, curriculum manager for widening participation, says the college identifies formal and informal learning opportunities so that residents do not necessarily have to enrol at the college. Sometimes this involves helping individuals prepare a curriculum vitae, or organising health awareness days for men.

"It's about developing educational opportunities through other media," she says. "Some of them may not necessarily be seen as learning, even though they are."

The college acts as a conduit, drawing money from sources such as the Learning and Skills Council (LSC), and then passing it to other bodies to run programmes. Community learning representatives, who are funded by the LSC, liaise with residents and suggest new programmes.

Sher Ali Miah, an outreach worker at the council-run advice service Access Point, says that the community learning representatives are meeting the needs of people who cannot use college facilities. "It's healthy when somebody is busy working in the community and listening to its needs," he adds.

Wherever possible, the college encourages integration between communities and ethnic groups. Sometimes, however, programmes have to be laid on for specific groups. Earlier this year, 10 young Pathan women gained national vocational qualifications in childcare and education after attending women-only classes. "We had to clear the place of men, and find areas [to teach in] that had been vetted by the elders of the community," says Clissold.

The efforts of Burnley College were praised in a report published last month by the Learning and Skills Development Agency. The report, commissioned by the Government's Neighbourhood Renewal Unit, looked at how skills development can help to revitalise deprived areas.

Sue Taylor, the report's author, says that Burnley College faced particular challenges in the aftermath of the riots, but responded by working at a neighbourhood level. "The college was seen as a neutral partner in the aftermath of the disturbances."

Whereas some of the initiatives suggested by a task force set up in late 2001 were seen as short-term, residents knew that the college was looking to the long-term. However, it was vital that it should demonstrate that it knew the community if it wanted to broker better relations.

"Sometimes, people living in deprived areas feel powerless to bring about change," says Taylor. "If a college works to identify learning needs and helps them to exercise responsibility, then the community is more likely to find a voice."

Burnley is not alone in using residents to encourage learning outside traditional locations. North Warwickshire and Hinckley College trains former students up as paid "learning ambassadors", while, in Bristol, the community education service runs a course for "learning champions".

The LSDA report also highlights the benefits of citizenship programmes established at Oldham College in the aftermath of that town's riots in early 2001 which, it says, gave residents a new sense of responsibility for bringing about change.

Oldham has 22 satellite sites to deliver learning in the community. Ruth Percy, the college's communications officer, says the college is a "safe haven" for people from different ethnic groups. "They see one another as students, and develop friendships across the communities."

Back at Burnley College, Clissold would still like to see more integration. "We still find groups of Asian men who stick together, the same as Asian women," he says. Nevertheless, the college has a good recruitment record, with 23 per cent of students coming from minority ethnic communities, compared with 7 per cent of the town's overall population.

This weekend's Reach1 festival should demonstrate how much progress has been made in Burnley. Events will be aimed at all ages, with the dance tent including everything from Indian classical music to Glenn Miller.

"Different communities are taking responsibility for what is happening in their own localities," says Fishwick. "It's a conscious attempt to bring people together and show the town in a positive light."

A COMMUNITY LEARNING CAMPAIGNER'S STORY

Up until three years ago, Anisa Bibi taught IT and call centre operations at Burnley College.

When her post disappeared due to funding cuts, the college recommended that she apply to be a community learning representative in Daneshouse, one of the areas where riots occurred in July 2001.

In spite of the disturbances, Bibi, who had begun her job the previous January, remains optimistic and proud of what she and other people have achieved since in the predominantly Asian neighbourhood. "I've grown up with the majority of people who live here and went to school with many of them," she says.

Bibi holds surgeries, where she offers guidance, and teaches internet courses. Among the greatest challenges are older Asian women, some of whom speak little English, and young Asian men who, owing to peer group pressure, are reluctant to learn anything at all.

"Many of the women in the community need to enhance their qualifications. Some have left education and just sit at home. I want to see what their talents are and how they can be creative," she says.

Bibi has in the past organised sports activities for young men, with mixed success. "There are still a majority who are reluctant to get into education." She adds: "It's hard to reach that group because they are more into vandalism and graffiti."

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