Rural Centres: Cambridgeshire Adult Learning and Skills

16 Feb 2015

Nyree Scott from Cambridgeshire County Council's Adult Learning and Skills team, runs computer and internet classes at outreach venues in some of the county's most remote towns and villages. For Nyree, relationship building is the key to rural delivery, and listening to what communities need and want is at the heart of building those relationships.

She explains: "In rural areas, you simply can't expect people to travel in to see you, and run classes from a central venue. You have to go out and find people where they are, and more importantly, find out what they want. What's more, you have to plan your approach because building trust is vital. People often don't realise how isolated and introverted some rural communities can be. You need to find the right intermediaries and partners to introduce you, and the right hook to introduce yourself. You've got to keep your ear to the ground, listen carefully to what people say, and work your connections.

"If you can get in with the Parish Council, that's a great start in any village. In fact in Manea, a small village I visit on a Wednesdays, the Parish Council has funded the hall we use, and that's kept the computer club going. In the same village, the big issue was the lack of mains gas. I used the new club as a hook, a mini presentation was given to demonstrate how by clubbing together, they could all get a better deal purchasing their supplies. Their computer club then has been growing out from there.

"In another location, one of the community leaders was a keen angler, and I showed him what fishing information and resources he could find online - and that's how we started out there. Once established, your next trick has to be to find volunteers within that community who can help you keep that club going, and make it sustainable.

"Some communities are always going to be harder to access than others - and something we've had some success with in the past is working with gypsy, and traveller communities. Here you really do need to be introduced by a very trusted intermediary, someone who is well known and well trusted. These communities can be very isolated, and very mistrustful of strangers, and those relationships take time to build and need constant renewal as people move on and around.

"Reliable internet connections are an issue wherever you go, and you have to be prepared. Even if somewhere has wifi - like the Anchor pub I visit on Wednesday mornings in Wimblington - it may not be able to support many users for the kind of learning they need to do. Mifi hotspots and dongles are vital, and you have to robustly test any potential location. It's safe to say that around here, four wheeled drive is another equipment essential! Some places are very challenging to get to, and if you're finding it difficult, you can only imagine how hard and how expensive it is for potential learners to use the very limited public transport options.

"Other key partners in rural areas include Jobcentre Plus offices, and Housing Associations. I've got great relationships with most in my area, and they are increasingly clued up and keen on getting our support for their own digital inclusion programmes and targets. Each of those relationships has taken time to develop, and you really need the gift of the gab to make it work. If you don't ask, you don't get, and if you don't sell yourself and your services no one else is going to do it for you! It's a mixture of charm, diplomacy, blackmail, exchange, and mutual back-scratching! If you can listen, dig down into what partners care about, what they want and need - and then provide them with attractive solutions - you're in.

"Finally, I have to say that the internet is a godsend to rural practitioners! It's the best way to co-ordinate volunteers, communicate with staff, partners and learners, research your communities, and access support. In fact some of my best and most useful support connections are with other Online Centres up and down the country, who can help me troubleshoot, think things through, and share best practice examples. At the end of the day, the internet means it doesn't matter where you are - you can make connections. And that's in a nutshell why it's so very important for rural communities."