The cement that keeps an estate together
The Leitch proposals will not guarantee jobs in some communities but there will be other important spin-offs, says Carol Taylor
Carol Taylor is Joint Director of the Basic Skills Agency. She is writing here in a personal capacity.
I was sitting in a community café on the outskirts of a small, northern town just before Christmas. The estate was celebrating its 25th birthday - 25 years since it was built to house what was called the 'Manchester overspill'. I had been invited to the cafe, the hub of the estate, by Helen, the community education worker, to see the effects of eight years of intense educational activity and to hear first hand about people's experiences.
What was going on was impressive. The primary school was at the heart of much of the activity; the busy library was right in the middle of the estate; there was a state-of-the-art nursery/children's centre, and the 'parish rooms' had been wrested from the exclusive use of the over-60s to become a vibrant adult education centre. The people I met obviously enjoyed living there. They liked the sense of belonging and being part of an active community.
Three generations joined us at the table - Mary, daughter Marie and granddaughter Kylie. Marie was persuaded to try a family literacy class - 'she told me it would help Kylie, I wouldn't have to do no writing, it would be easy. She bullied me into it'. She listed the classes she had attended since then, the achievements - 'well, then I did literacy Level 1, and then IT. Then I persuaded my mum to come to another thing about looking after the kids (this turned out to be the Basic Skills Agency's programme, 'Keeping up with the Children'), and then we both did a numeracy course (both getting Level 1, I discover). Then I think it was GCSE English, both of us, and a course on CV writing and getting a job, then...'Next I met Tony who talked about his first course, five years ago - on 'maths and computers'.
The increased funding has had a profound impact on skills levels on the estate
but people cannot get jobs
This started him off on his journey. He picked up numeracy Level 1, did a further IT course and, amongst other things, set up a children's football team. He had just come back from taking them to a weekend tournament in Torquay.
Helen told me that these stories could be repeated hundreds of times; she pointed out people through the window - 'she did literacy and numeracy, and creative writing and is a volunteer'; 'he has just agreed to come to a literacy class';''I've been trying to get him for years!' Since the explosion of funding for basic skills a range of opportunities has been developed: embedded and discrete literacy and numeracy courses, family learning and parenting. The Skills for Life teachers have involved Jobcentre Plus, the church and the mental health team. Helen is clear how much better things are since Skills for Life was launched - there is a more professional workforce, standards, curricula and tests.
However, while she is sure that the increased funding has had a profound impact on the skills levels on the estate, what she cannot do is get people jobs. Despite his educational success in recent years Tony does not have a job. Does he want one? Of course he does, but there are few local jobs to apply for. Those that do come up attract hundreds of applicants and anyway, as Tony said, if employers know you 'come off the estate they won't look at you'. There are jobs further afield but he has no 'transport' and cannot afford any.
One in four of the estate's 16 to 24-year-olds is unemployed, a statistic Helen puts to good effect to apply for yet more money. This time she is applying for Lottery money, but before that she sought funding from the Single Regeneration Budget, European Social Fund, Learning and Skills Council - she can reel them off.
However, as I sat in that café listening to Helen I began to wonder how the Leitch Review recommendations will help the people I met. The Review is to be welcomed, with its emphasis on developing the skills of not only those who are out of work but those in low-paid and low-skilled jobs. Of course we need to upskill the current and future workforce and we need employers to become engaged in that process. But what about Helen's estate? There are no local employers to lead on the development of skills, and no adequate transport to get to the jobs that do exist - 10 miles away in the city. People with five or six qualifications, who have moved, over years, from having very poor basic skills to GCSE and beyond still struggle to get a job.
One in four of the estate's 16 to 24-yearolds is unemployed, a statistic Helen puts to good effect to apply for yet more money
Nevertheless, Helen and her neighbours did have reason to celebrate their 25th anniversary, as their local MP acknowledged in a recent speech: 'It (the estate) was given half a dozen shops, a primary school, a church hall, two pubs, a narrow choice of bus routes, very few play facilities and no employment opportunities to speak of. It was not designed to liberate people or to engage or involve its residents. In a phrase, that estate was not designed to succeed as a community. It is now the hub of a network of activities, including ...a huge variety of adult education classes, with an exceptionally high participation rate, a comprehensive adult literacy programme, including popular parenting.'
People like Tony and Marie may not be able to get jobs, but they can inspire their families and their communities to value education as a way to take control of their lives. They can also help their neighbours to recognise that education has the power to bring together communities, enrich lives and help different generations to live together and learn from each other.
Perhaps this is the way we should be looking at the Leitch Review - it is about upskilling the current and future workforce for the impact it has on their lives, for intrinsic as well as extrinsic reasons, as well as to improve the economy of the country in the global world.
The design of many housing estates makes it hard for them to succeed as communities - but education can help to compensate for the planners' oversights
See also: 2020 Vision