An on-site community learning centre opens up opportunities to adult learners and school learners. Jackie Lees, senior strategic leaders at Mitchell High School Business and Enterprise College, shares the development of their CLC, with tips for organising community learning provision

Where we stand
Mitchell High School Business and Enterprise College is located in the middle of three large social housing estates, serving the areas of Bucknall, Bentilee and Abbey Hulton – areas characterised by all of the common indicators of deprivation, in particular high unemployment rates stemming from the decline of the area’s traditional industries, such as coal, steel and pottery.

The school is a comprehensive for 11- to 16-year-olds, with more than 500 students on roll. Many of our students are from families where unemployment is now in the third generation and little value is given to education. High teenage pregnancies, coupled with low aspirations and poor life chances, all featured in the overall picture. Yet there was much capacity for change.

In setting up our Community Learning Centre, we knew we had a role to play in supporting community members to re-engage in education and to take up employment opportunities. We also knew that to engage learners we needed to be responsive to their needs, and so we consulted with residents to get a good idea of what they were looking for and what would entice them into the centre. We have gone a long way and accomplished a great deal since then. We are now at 60% for A*-C at GCSE (a rise of 31% since our CLC opened in 2003); have been re-accredited with the Matrix standard for our work in the CLC; and now exude a culture in school and
out that values education and promotes achievement.   

Back to the start…
The area the community learning centre (CLC) occupies was originally a car park in school, which was subsequently converted into classrooms. When the school won a bid for a new design and technology suite, these classrooms were abandoned, and a separate bid (together with an element of creativity by the governors!) led to the CLC being created.

There’s something about the smell of a newly laid carpet that says ‘fresh beginning, we have a new start’ – and there we were in August 2003, with our new start and our new carpet in our new school facility, complete with all the trimmings: freshly painted walls; bookcases; books; computers and chairs, lots of them. Computer chairs to adjust height and posture on and chairs to simply sit on – all in matching colours, of course. Now our dilemma was: how do we fill all these chairs? What do we do to get adult learners into our lovely new CLC, and how do we manage this when school students will be in there too? That was our challenge and we were certainly up for meeting it. 

We did not want a resource that opened its doors to adult learners long after the dust had settled and the students had gone home; we felt that our young students and adult learners should learn side by side in the CLC, clearly visible to each other. This promotes the value of lifelong learning and gets students used to seeing adults on site and using the facility as a community resource.

For some schools, understandably, this may seem like a belief set in complete and utter madness, but not for us! We had a vision for the CLC to become the community hub for aspirations, enterprise and regeneration, through a focus on lifelong learning and the opportunities arising from it. It was an aspirational vision for us. Yet we knew we had to do this, as a newly designated extended school with a remit to open the doors to our community, build strong local links, work in partnership with other organisations and provide childcare. We had the commitment and drive to make it happen and a strong desire to contribute to the regeneration of the area. We wanted to be part of the wider adult learning network in Stoke-on-Trent but to offer a service that was specific to local need and interest.

The first term
At one level, the first term was all about setting standards of behaviour and expectations for students while working in the CLC. Students are sent to work in the CLC by the subject teacher, for various reasons, eg, to carry out research or do word processing. It complements classroom learning and is a particular asset for the vocational subjects where portfolio building is required. This is a wonderful resource for students but it was vital to remember that it is also a resource for the wider community. Anyone from the community can walk into the CLC at any time, so it was absolutely necessary for the centre to become the public face of the school. It was important, therefore, that we give a good impression to all who visit the centre – whether for an initial look around or to use the facilities – as they will make a snapshot judgement of the school from what they see in the CLC. Also, what they see when they arrive will determine whether or not they return.

We also worked on firming up our existing partnerships and establishing collaborative links with other voluntary and statutory organisations. This work was facilitated by having a full-time extended school manager in post (a new appointment). We also booked courses for adults, which were delivered initially by a local college.

Revisions to our programme
It was of paramount importance that our provision remained responsive to local need; and it became very clear, early on, that we needed to make some changes to the courses on offer. It became apparent that the courses were not what our adults wanted and there were some problems with our provider, which could not be ironed out. All too often, for example, courses were cancelled because the desired number of participants the college expected us to recruit could not be achieved. After all our efforts to recruit adult learners, we had to turn people away. This was the last thing we wanted to do, as we understood what a huge step it was for some adults to come on site; and, of course, we wanted adults to have an excellent learning experience and experience the outcomes associated with this.

Having an inclusive approach that targeted some of the most vulnerable in our community – including those adults who wanted to develop basic skills in Maths, English and ICT – was at the heart of our vision and at the front of our minds when selecting a new provider. After research and deliberation we found the perfect solution in the form of Learn Direct, and almost a year after the CLC opened we became a designated Learn Direct centre. By this time we employed two tutors, in self-financing posts, to work solely with our adults.

We cannot stress enough the importance of providing childcare for adult learners. As part of the national pilot for extended schools, our remit was to offer childcare for under-fives. We did this by converting a storage area and creating a purpose-built crèche facility. Again, it made sense to turn to those specialising in this area, so we established a partnership with our newly opened children’s centre and, soon afterwards, employed two part-time childcare practitioners. Having a crèche has enabled us to break down one of the barriers many of our adult learners face when they decide to get back into learning: having access to quality childcare. From the outset we decided that the crèche facility would be strictly for our adult learners and we have offered this facility free of charge. When funding for the crèche ran out, we successfully bid into Awards for All (Big Lottery funding) and we have since established an agreement with our children’s centre to keep it operating.

Motivating learners
As many of our adult learners lack confidence and self-esteem, we encourage them to participate in a free, three-day motivational programme which we offer at the centre. This programme encourages participants to think carefully about their future and to make plans towards fulfilling their goals.
For many of these learners, this is about gaining first-time qualifications and then going on to work experience – and this too is something we are able to offer in the CLC itself. And, as we have found, learners are so keen to gain experience that we always have a small team of volunteers who help with the day-to-day running of the CLC. They are a valuable part of the team and we have the same high expectations of them as we do of our paid staff.

Getting down to business
To complement the adult learning provision in the CLC we set up a mini business village on site. We realised that many of our unemployed adult learners had dreams of starting their own businesses but had no practical way of putting their ideas into practice.

We secured funding which we used to convert our disused caretaker’s house into six business start-up units. We converted one start-up area into a hairdressing salon, another space into a beauty salon, and the other four units provide office space. We have offered these units at very competitive rates and currently all of the units are full – in fact, we currently have a waiting list.

We anticipate that as these businesses gradually outgrow our facilities they will move into larger accommodation, which in turn will enable other budding entrepreneurs to move in. In addition to this, we are currently planning to convert another area into a seventh unit, which will become a photographic studio. This studio will be hired out to the community and will also be used by our students during their BTEC in Media.

Moreover, during early 2007 the school won a ‘Community Broadband’ bid for £265k to invest in the ICT infrastructure. We were able to replace our old machines with new state-of-the-art technology in the form of thin clients which are no larger than a cereal box (note to non-techies: thin clients aren’t slender students, but small network computers that depend on a central server for processing), and have replaced the old computer tower. We have been able to almost double the number of machines available for use, which has increased the number of students and adults who are able to access the CLC at any one time. Also, the funding covered all students in the school having a thin client, monitor, keyboard and mouse fitted free of charge in their own home. The clients connect directly to the school server so students are able to continue with their studies at home.

A shared vision We continued to promote our adult learning opportunities through a variety of means: we directly approached adults at the school gates, and in the school (and other) local car parks; gave flyers out to parents at our school and at our feeder primaries; and attended career and job fairs in the area.

However, we have always recognised that it is in no one’s best interests to simply sign adults on to courses that may not be suited to their needs. To combat this we secured a contract with NextStep, the adult strand of the Connexions service, an organisation with the expertise and experience to give impartial, quality information, advice and guidance to adults who came into the centre. Being part of the NextStep network has enabled us to refer adult learners on to other organisations if we do not offer what they need – and, in return, adults are referred to us from other organisations. This has worked incredibly well. We have made links with other local providers – for example, a local housing association – who have the contacts and knowledge to make appropriate referrals; and we work very closely with our local residents’ association to promote Mitchell as a community hub (our residents’ association is now key holder to the school).

We could not have offered what we do today without the excellent partnerships we have formed and sustained with Learn Direct, Connexions, the children’s centre and other providers and funders. Each has such an important role to play. In fact, our multi-agency approach and shared vision has been fundamental to the success of the CLC and has been commended by Ofsted – this was very reassuring.

Outputs and outcomes
During February 2008 the CLC was re-accredited with the Matrix standard, which we first gained three years ago – an award that acknowledges the overall standard of information, advice and guidance offered at the CLC. The CLC also played its part in securing for Mitchell the Investors in People award; and, in recognition of the relationship that the school has with its parents and carers, the school achieved yet another accolade, the DfES Leading Parent Partnership Award, in December 2005. This award is an acknowledgement that the school has effective communication procedures with all of our parents and carers, and recognises the lifelong learning opportunities we offer through the CLC.

The centre has been accessed and used by those learners we hoped to target , which is something we regard as a big achievement. Since February 2004, more than 1,500 adult learners have accessed the CLC for online learning courses. The majority of our adults are pre Level 2 learners, from lone-parent families, and are predominately female. Providing childcare and courses to specifically meet their requirements has certainly facilitated take-up. What is more, feedback from our adult learners tells us that they enjoy learning in the same environment as students from the school and that any misgivings they may have had at first were quickly forgotten. These learners are excellent role models to our students and are promoting the value of lifelong learning.

Then there are, of course, the learning outcomes for adults and the work experience they can gain at the centre. Voluntary work experience has led to full-time employment for some of our learners. For instance, our senior Learn Direct tutor first came to the CLC to take part in our motivational programme, then went on to complete a European Computer Driving Licence qualification, became a volunteer and then gained full-time employment (and subsequent promotion). Many learners have achieved first-time qualification and have gone on to further education, while others have worked towards entry-level qualifications: eg, some have progressed onto the Graduate Teacher Programme and courses for higher level teaching assistants. Four of our adult learners have leased units in the business village and set up their own company, and one of them has recently won a Stoke-on-Trent Start-Up Business Initiative Award. This business is currently looking for larger premises to expand into and now employs three staff. We are very proud!

There are also the very important ‘softer’ outcomes for learners, such as increased levels of confidence and self-esteem. Lots of these outcomes have been helped through the relationships we have nurtured with learners and the confidence we have in them. In these respects also, Ofsted recognised the ‘support [which] is particularly sensitive to the individual needs and circumstances of learners’ and ‘Staff [who] have a good knowledge of their learners and understand their personal circumstances’.

The impact the CLC has had on our students’ attainment is difficult to quantify and of course it is impossible to disentangle outcomes. Our GCSE success rate in summer 2003, when the CLC opened, stood at 29% A*-C. In 2004 this rose to 43% and by summer 2007 this had risen further to 60%. The CLC, which is open all year round, is just one strand of what we offer as an extended school and we have seen levels of attainment rise as the extended school flourishes.  We do believe that the CLC, as part of a wider package of community and student-led provision, has made an impact. We now have exceptional facilities and are exuding a culture in school and the wider community that values education and promotes achievement.

Some top tips for setting up community learning provision

  • If you are serious about developing your provision, then put people into post who can give it the time and effort that is required to drive developments forward.
  • Consider carefully what form of learning you offer your students, their parents and the local community, and let their needs drive the provision – you cannot pay lip service to this.
  • Multi-agency working with a range of partners, including the statutory services and voluntary and community groups, can be time-consuming but is a necessary and important ingredient of success. The merits of collaborative working are enormous and, to put it simply, you cannot do it all alone.
  • Do get into the habit, early on, of writing bids – and, although it is tempting, do not look only for large pots of money. Sometimes even a small amount can make a significant difference. Our school charity – the Parents, Staff and Friends Association – has been successful in accessing pots of money for school and community improvement.