It’s true – it’s all about location, location, location

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks in the same way as I spend most of my weeks – going out and talking to partners about what we do as an organisation. A few of the meetings I’ve had recently have made me think about how people perceive the UK online centres network – or should I say ‘wrongly perceive’ – people tell me they think of it as a network of places (much like shops) on the high street with rows of computers and staffed by paid employees. This couldn’t be further from the truth, so I wanted to paint a more accurate picture of what our network looks like.

The UK online centres network is a wonderfully diverse one, made up of a broad range of places. Yes, we do have some centres that are in fixed places, in what you might call traditional locations. But 70% of our centres aren’t – they’re in places like swimming baths, cafes, mosques, football clubs and even parks.

The network is also made up of fantastic people – 20,000 of whom are volunteers – who can take learning to places where people feel comfortable. It’s not really the place that’s important – it’s the commitment and the understanding of the staff and volunteers who know their communities and their learners, and are committed to supporting them – wherever works best. 79% of learners supported by the UK online centres network are socially excluded, and we know these kind of people are likely to be turned off by traditional learning environments, so it’s important we work hard not to exclude them any further and meeting them on their home turf and somewhere that they find familiar.

It’s really all about capacity building, and by having the right people in the right community locations, we can support this. We’ve got a great centre in Sheffield who run sessions from a computer room in their community centre – but this isn’t all they do. They run a session for an Asian women’s group at swimming baths, where the group already feel comfortable. They also set up a session at a sheltered housing scheme, training up local volunteers and supplying laptops so after a few month the sessions can now continue independently. The training they run from their “fixed” centre is only a tiny part of what they do – and this is replicated throughout our network.

A lot of the confusion is around language – we’re called UK online centres, and we often refer to our community partners as “centres”. But as a network organisation, it’s vital that we can provide leadership, support and services for a range of places, organisations and partners, wherever they might be, so that everyone can get the support they need to improve their skills.

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