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Bus route to inclusive learning

Last updated 11 May 2008, created 03 May 2002, viewed 529

By taking French and ICT on the road, a Fermanagh college has bridged old divides. Bernard Adams reports

Winston Churchill had it in for County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland - he was dismissive of its "dreary steeples". But even he might have had his prejudices undermined by a prize-winning p More…roject which puts continuing education on the doorsteps of hundreds of students.

The project's "inclusiveness" was highly praised by the judges who recently gave it the prestigious Mary Glasgow award for language teaching. The term "inclusiveness" has an extra meaning in Northern Ireland: the scheme cleverly neutralises some of the dire educational effects of the steeples and the churches underneath them.

The Fermanagh College of Further Education has a four-wheeled solution: a well-equipped peripatetic classroom in a bright blue bus which has the advantage of being a blessedly neutral venue. When it stops in a car park in a town or village, neither community has any inhibitions about boarding a non-sectarian vehicle and starting to learn - so far, French and ICT.

The whole uncommonly successful venture is the brainchild of the Fermanagh college's languages and European co-ordinator, Joan Major. Back in 1996, the college had done the conventional thing and opened a well-equipped language centre at its Enniskillen base. "But", says Mrs Major, "it was mostly being used by people from the town and the immediate area."

Enniskillen is at the centre of Fermanagh, a long county split by Lough Erne. So some potential students are 20 or more miles from the college and in this poor county many are without transport.

"Often, potential students have other problems as well," Mrs Major says, "such as lack of child-minding, low self-esteem, previous bad experiences with education and feelings that 'learning is for others'. Nevertheless, our surveys also showed that there was a strong demand for language learning."

A mobile unit seemed to be a sensible, if costly, solution. So Mrs Major set about raising £32,000 from the European Union's peace and reconciliation programme.

With the help of the college's head of technology, Peter Ards, a refurbished library bus with a side-entry door was found and modified so that it could also take disabled students. It has been criss-crossing a hilly county for 18 months now. "unbelievably," says Mr Ards, "it has only blown one fuse in the whole of that time."

Nuala Corrigan, a lecturer in Spanish and Italian, who also teaches French, frequently goes out with the bus. The students sit in front of 12 PCs set on benches around the sides, while Nuala takes them through a tourist French course.

"Most of the learners have no knowledge of a foreign language," Nuala explains. "Many are hoping to go to France and make use of what they have learned and, because there are often French tourists here, some of the braver ones have already had a chance to try out a few words with visitors."

A key worker on the bus is the driver (Norman Allen in the early days), who also looks after the equipment. Nuala finds the whole language-bus experience very enjoyable, "particularly in the summer when we open the doors and sit outside for our coffee".

One of Nuala's students at Belcoo is Dolores Dagitt, a widow and a pensioner who had no way of getting to Enniskillen. She is adamant about the way the bus benefits the community: "If it weren't for the neutral bus we'd be all Catholics or all Protestants, sitting in separate classrooms. But in the bus there's a good mixture. The only trouble is that it's so popular that we have to fight for our share."

When the bus comes to Belcoo, two students from the Irish Republic walk the few hundred yards across the border from neighbouring Blacklion in County Leitrim, to have their lessons with the rest.

ICT skills, too, are being sharpened while the students study languages, and a parallel course has been developed which is primarily ICT, but has a language component and can be delivered by ICT tutors.

Because of the foot-and-mouth crisis, the bus was confined to its garage for the early part of 2001. But it is now chugging around the county again, and more than 300 students have participated so far.

In the first year, there were 104 Catholic students and 41 Protestants - mirroring the demographic pattern in the county. More than 75 per cent of the students paid reduced fees and only about 6 per cent paid the full cost.

Mrs Major illustrates the accessibility of the course another way: "Two mothers of young children, who did not have a car, were able to come to learn because the bus was parked outside their children's nursery school."

Rosemary Wylie is head of continuing education at the college. She believes that advance marketing among community leaders in outlying areas has been a key factor. She is delighted with the "intimate camaraderie" that the bus engenders among the students.

The principal of the college, Brian Rouse, who admits to having once been sceptical about the project, pointed out another statistic: "The bus is getting large numbers of men involved - more than a quarter of the students in the first year."

He is pleased that a second bus has been acquired which will be even more mobile - "able to pick up students at one hamlet, then go on to the next and pick up some more, so that the teacher can have a full complement."

The team are now plotting their next outreach project. Lough Erne is within 10 miles of most homes in the county and in summer attracts many tourists. Why not have a language boat: teaching foreign languages to locals and, perhaps, English to foreign visitors? Why not have five languages on the bus - including Irish? Why couldn't video-conferencing be on the agenda?

There's nothing "dreary", or unimaginative, or steeple-bound, about continuing education in County Fermanagh.

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