A pioneering project is helping offenders, drug addicts and other marginalised groups to change their lives through education. Mandy Garner reports.
Joe Baden is, unfortunately, not your average education adviser. But maybe he will be in the future. The new course coordinator of Action Learning in the Community (Alic), a project run by the Learning from Experience Trust, knows more about the marginalised people he is hoping to encourage into higher education than most.
Not only has he been detained by the police on several occasions, but he has also spent time in a mental hospital and has had drug and alcohol problems.
He has only recently been diagnosed with dyslexia and did not have much contact with school during his childhood in a "white, homophobic Bermondsey", where he felt he did not fit in.
But at 30, the last time he was arrested, he started the access course that took him away from addiction and to where he is now.
He says most training offered during probation is basic skills training. "It aims to teach us to get jobs, but the idea is that basic jobs - like bricklaying - is all we are fit for. When they talk about vocational training for working-class people they mean manual jobs. For the middle class, a degree can be considered as vocational. The balance needs to be redressed. We need to encourage the working class into higher education instead of accepting the limits that are placed on them. There were 1,200 kids at my school. Most wanted to be bank robbers."
Baden is an ardent advocate for the benefits of higher education. He has all the answers for potential students who are prevaricating, whether because of lack of self-confidence or social problems. "I am so passionate about it because I know how much education has changed me," he says, adding that Alic showed it practised what it preached by employing him based on his life experience rather than his management record.
Alic, which began two years ago as a pilot project, is based in East Greenwich Library in London and works to try to get people from various backgrounds - probation, drug, alcohol and mental-health problems - into higher education. It is working with Lewisham College, Greenwich College, Community Education Lewisham and Goldsmiths College of London University.
This week, a new course begins that offers accredited support for students on access and pre-access courses. Baden believes that the experiential learning camp is polarised between those who see it as a "trendy experiment" and those who view it as the way to achieve mass participation.
He hopes to bridge that gap by offering "a course that recognises the validity of life experience as a learning tool, but that also provides students with the skills and discipline needed to survive in higher education".
The new course, for example, will cover a topic in which the group has common experiences, such as mental health. The class will use themselves as a study group upon which to base research. Their conclusions will then be placed against academic theory. The course will also teach students how to understand and use academic language, which many find excludes them, as well as essay-writing and other skills.
Baden says that he was put off by academic language. The first academic book he approached was Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism . He sat with a dictionary and worked his way through. "I tell students they need to learn the language because language is power. If people can talk down to you, they can have power over you," he says.
Alic is now working with various partners to ensure services are not being duplicated. They include Dependency to Work (D2W), which deals with people with drug, alcohol and mental-health problems, and Sherbourne House, which aims to give young offenders the training and skills they need to prevent them from reoffending.
The work with D2W includes training of mentors to help students once they reach university. Baden hopes that eventually they will be able to provide mentors for people making the transition from university to work. Alic, which is supported by a Department for Education and Employment grant, and D2W are also working on an outreach programme to develop a route to university other than through A levels, since young people do not qualify for access courses until they are 21.
Besides supporting students through access courses and offering mentoring, Alic also gives them a taste of university life by taking them on tours and getting them to sit in on lectures. The results can be amazing.
"They suddenly think perhaps I can do it. One student had walked past Greenwich University hundreds of times, but he didn't even know it was there. He did not feel he should be in there. But after he had been to visit itI he felt that he had just as much right to be there (as anyone)," Baden says.
The students involved in Alic face many obstacles, including family resistance to them "changing", and much of the project's work involves counselling and support. One way of overcoming confidence problems is through short taster courses. "The aim is to break down their anxieties," says Tracey Bush, curriculum coordinator at the East Greenwich centre.
She says all access-type courses aim to be informal and accessible. "We have tried seriously not to mirror the classroom situation." She says many students have had problems with secondary education's "very structured framework".
Baden is disappointed with the government's record on widening participation, particularly with regards to funding. "We have to accept that the system is not conducive to widening participation. We have to find a way to do it within the restrictions, without lowering standards. We want to bring people to a level where they can legitimately get into university," he says.
For the future, Baden hopes to start targeting homeless people for access courses, working with other agencies to provide the support network they might need. His partners are of a like mind. "It is about changing society's myths and showing that it can be done," says Saab Patel, borough coordinator of D2W.
Mike Goodfield, basic-skills tutor at Sherbourne House, thinks the project will eventually go nationwide. He says: "People get so used to being told they are failures. They think they have failed before so they will fail again. But we cannot set them up to fail. They need to have the skills to succeed. We can't take our eyes off the ball."
"I thought I was the biggest failure on the planet. Even when I did achieve something, it was always put down. There is lots of stigma attached to education. Middle-class people get it handed to them on a plate. They should do a graduate class in working-class living instead of looking down on us and appraising us," says 46-year-old Christina Berry.
After years of abuse from her husband and a subsequent breakdown, she has just started a short course with Action Learning in the Community in East Greenwich, which will hopefully take her all the way to a degree.
Just weeks into the course, Berry feels her life has been transformed. At first she expected that she would not be able to understand what people were talking about on the course - which focused on mental health and gender - but within minutes she realised she had a lot to contribute.
"I didn't have butterflies in my stomach, I had monstrous moths. I had been living in a hole. I was locked in my house 24 hours a day because I felt safer there. This course really opened my eyes. I read psychology books about what I was feeling and found it was normal. I wasn't a freak. It was better than going to a psychologist."
She had trained in the past to be a veterinary nurse, but her husband had not allowed her to take the exams. Berry trains dogs now and says: "I saw that they need correction and rewards. I could train those dogs, but I couldn't train the one I was married to and I never got any reward from him."
Berry thought she was only good for doing cleaning jobs. "It really stretches your imagination looking at the cobwebs," she says ironically. The Alic course is free - she would not have been able to do it if it was not - and Berry has a lot of support from her three children and her seven-year-old granddaughter, who even asks her to read her books to her. "It is currently Michel Foucault! Not really her kind of story, but she has grasped that this man looked into your mind. I also read my essays to her.
"If I don't succeed, I know this time it is my fault," she adds. "If I am unsuccessful it is because I did not work hard enough. There is no outside force. I am in control of myself. I am looking forward to moving on. I want to be somewhere and I want something at the end of it."