Caer Las Cymru, is an organisation working throughout South Wales with vulnerable people - the homeless, those in shared housing and people with mental health issues. The head office is based in Swansea and the charity has a diverse range of projects including the Connect Project which includes a strong element of basic skills support. The project focuses on vulnerable people in the community, often people with basic skills needs masked by wider social problems of mental illness, homelessness or addiction. The project provides a community resource centre for local people and encourages trips, arts and crafts workshops, cookery and other activities aimed at building confidence and self esteem, building social links with others and providing basic skills tuition in a non threatening environment.
Connect Basic Skills Tutor Trish Best is clear that the project should focus on people and their needs and that basic skills and other skills requirements, should only be addressed as part of an individual’s wider needs. ‘Connect is about looking at a person’s requirements holistically and working with them in a very flexible way.’ She explains that in terms of basic skills this might mean supporting someone who can only manage just ten minutes of a basic skills session, allowing lessons to be disrupted for cups of tea and a chat. Learning is planned on a very individual personalised basis. This is possible because as well as Trish, each basic skills session also has the support of two volunteers who are trained as Learning Support Assistants.
There are over 100 Connect Project users aged between 18 and 65, and over a third of these have basic skills needs. Trish explains, ‘The people enrolled on this project have wider issues which can be a barrier to learning. First and foremost comes the person and their needs, and what they require to feel happier and more confident. But we can’t underestimate the barrier which severe basic skills needs might have on their situation, for example, a homeless person who is required to, but unable to, fill in forms for housing or to find work.’ Gaining basic skills knowledge, maybe in the form of a qualification, but for many just the knowledge gained in class, will help build confidence. Trish describes how one of the Connect project users who she has worked with recently, who was homeless and a recovering alcoholic, with very low self esteem, was helped into a position where they were able to find and hold down a job. Other people were able to find more independence in their lives through gaining the ability to do some of things we might take for granted like reading their post, writing notes, or buying a bus ticket. The leap for a vulnerable individual to this kind of independence is massive.
Some of the learners do work towards qualifications. The project’s commitment to flexibility and support for the individual means that a learner can be supported and accommodated, whether they prefer to work towards an Open College Network certificated unit, without the worry of an exam, or whether they want to aim for a City and Guilds qualification. A member of Trish’s team can even accompany people to college to offer moral support before an exam.
Caer Las also runs an outreach project. This project works with some of the most marginalised members of society, many of whom are homeless. The aim here is to help people into housing and improve their situations and quality of life. Classes in cookery and budgeting are both practical requirements for the people involved in the class, but also good ways to teach embedded basic skills in a non-schoolroom, non-threatening way. Games, such as Boggle, are also played, to help with spelling and literacy but also to encourage socialising, to combat the isolation felt by some of learners. Lessons which many would find too intimidating in a classroom environment are learned readily with the support of Trish and her team.
Trish has worked in basic skills, in other settings and explains that the main difference of basic skills tutoring in a voluntary or community setting is the focus on basic skills as a means of addressing wider social problems for the individuals they work with. At Caer Las Cymru, where the self esteem of the service users is typically very low, Trish has watched as their confidence has soared. ‘With support they realise they can learn and they can achieve something,’ says Trish.