The Ashburton Learning Centre (ALC) has evolved from a small organisation established in 1979 providing a highly confidential literacy service to a few people in their own homes, to a very visible learning centre, proactively meeting a wide range of individual and community learning needs. Last year about 400 people used their services.

“We are still confidential,” says Mary Philip, the manager of the centre, “but we want to be visible, we want to be a place where people call in off the street if they need help.”

In 2008, in response to the funding cuts to the ACE sector, the learning centre became a PTE so they could access funding in their own right. They are also supported by local community funders, Advance Ashburton, Mackenzie Charitable Foundation (a local The Ashburton Learning Centre: “Everybody Matters” trust), Community Trust of Mid & South Canterbury, Lotteries and the Ashburton Trust (Lions).

The underpinning philosophy, the attitude that drives the organisation, is Everybody Matters. The ALC provides a wrap-around service that actively supports each student through and often beyond their time at the centre, and a wholecommunity approach that embraces not only adults, but children too.

Wrap around support

Currently their website lists five courses each offered for beginners, intermediate and advanced learners. There is: English for newcomers (and IELTS preparation); apprentice support; reading writing and maths support; computing classes/digital literacy; driver’s licence support; te reo; and foundation learning (open wānanga).

These courses are not generic programmes because each student is working on their own individual learning plan designed around the context of their lives, their learning styles and their learning goals. Each plan is regularly monitored and evaluated.

Nearly all the literacy and numeracy tuition is one to one, as is the support provided to people with specific learning needs such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD or Irlen syndrome.

“No one is turned away,” says Mary. “For some people it is the first time that their problem has been identified and addressed. It may take us some time because we provide very intensive and in depth support.”

Counselling is often provided to the whole family or whānau to support the learner, and facilitate learning opportunities for other family members.

All learners get practical support if they need it. This might involve collecting people each morning, taking them to the doctor, taking them to a job interview, organising access to immigration specialists, getting a hearing aid or special glasses for the Irlen syndrome, or helping learners access ongoing funding.

When people leave the centre they are usually on their way to a job or another training programme, but that’s not where the support ends. Tutors arm their students (as appropriate) with apps for their phones, so that when they are at work they can just talk into their phone and get immediate support for spelling. If the learners have gone onto other training programmes their progress is tracked.

It goes without saying that such an intensive and wrap-around approach is driven by a skilled and committed group of tutors. Mary Philip has a degree in education and extensive management experience. The centre employs 18 tutors, some working on paid contracted hours alongside their volunteering. All are well qualified in foundation learning and adult education, with specialists in the different types of learning difficulties.

The ALC takes professional development for its staff seriously. There are weekly PD sessions as well as supported external training. Tutors work together to ensure any problems are shared and managed professionally. Every tutor will go the extra mile for their students.

“We’ve made the organisation fit in with our students’ lives, and that’s not easy to do,” says Mary. “You have to have people willing to do that, to have a real passion for it – and they do.”

Whole community approach

The programme has changed a lot over the last 5-8 years in response to the changing demographics of the area. One of the major changes has been the influx of migrants, many of whom live in rural areas. Today migrants make up about 38 percent of the total number of students. The centre’s ESOL classes not only provide them with English language tuition, but a caring and hospitable place to meet with others in the same position. Where necessary groups are facilitated in rural areas. The ALC is now in the process of establishing a migrant hub.

Because the programme is so learner-driven courses change each year. For example some years, when the demand is there, the ALC works with a local marae, providing raranga programmes. Participants often then move into literacy support. The Pasifika community has also been engaged through a church.

A few years ago a local accountant set up a foundation, Advance Ashburton. It is a relatively wealthy community and the foundation has quite quickly attracted substantial donations. One generous benefactor donated a large sum of money for child literacy. A project called BOOST was developed and the Mackenzie Foundation came on board as a co-funder.

“No other group could pick it up so we established another arm at the learning centre – for child literacy,” says Mary. “We are targeting 7-8 year olds who are falling behind. We’re using the same computer-based Three Steps to Literacy programme that we use with adults at the ALC.

Children on the programme receive tuition twice a week, for a 30 week period.

The programme is currently used in 10 Mid-Canterbury schools, delivering lessons to 120 children. “Our aim is to be in all Mid-Canterbury schools by 2019,” says Mary. “We have had magnificent feedback. The BOOST children they call them.”

In the past the ALC also supported young adults, under 16 who had dropped out of school. They worked with ALC tutors who made sure they passed their literacy and numeracy credits.


Like most ACE providers the ALC staff are not short of stories about how lives have been changed by their services.

Recently the ACC referred a local farm worker who had a bad back and was in need of re-training. This man could not read and write at all when he came to them. “He was told at school that he would amount to nothing – that he was really stupid,” says Mary. “After two year’s work he is now a confident reader and well on his way through his heavy vehicle licensing. He has a wife and three beautiful children. He has definitely amounted to something!”

Then there is a Māori man who had just come out of prison. He had very low levels of literacy/numeracy and absolutely no confidence. After working with his tutor at the centre he felt confident enough to go over to the West Coast and take on a yearlong course as a digger driver. The tutor organised his enrolment, student loan and accommodation. “He came back to see us when he was three-quarters of the way through and his whole life had changed for the better. He loved his course and was really achieving for the first time in his life.”

Another story: A woman from an abusive relationship came to the centre with severe learning difficulties. She had never had a diagnosis and did not know why she could not read. After two years of intensive remedial intervention by a trained SLD tutor she can read, use the computer and stand up to her husband. Her understanding of her own learning difficulties allowed her to recognise that both her son and daughter have the same difficulty. Intervention has now been provided to the children, hopefully breaking the cycle.

It can sometimes be tempting to wonder why so many people fail to learn to read and write at school. Mary, who is a trained teacher, points out that for every class of about 30 (or more) there are usually about five pupils who just can’t learn in the mainstream approach. Under the current system it’s impossible for just one teacher to meet their individual needs.

But it can take just one relatively small community organisation with dedicated and skilled staff – especially one that works with both adults and children – to find a solution to every learning problem in that community.

The ALC is due for their next NZQA Report of External Evaluation and Review. They had their last one in 2014. The conclusion then reached by the evaluators was that the ALC demonstrated that their ‘everybody matters’ approach was definitely finding a ‘solution to every problem’. NZQA marked the PTE ‘excellent’ on all counts.