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Back from the brink of death

Ben Rowlinson, who suffered near-fatal injuries, tells Martin Whittaker how his college nurtured him back to his studies and on to a career path

Ben Rowlinson was driving to college when the accident happened. The last thing he remembered was his car being low on fuel.

"I woke up in hospital," he said. "I was a bit shaken when my dad told me what the date was. I thought I'd only been in there a few days. But he told me I'd missed four weeks."

Ben was 18 and studying for a national vocational qualification in care at West Suffolk College, Bury St Edmunds. He has suffered from epilepsy all his life and is believed to have had a fit while driving that February morning in 1995. His car mounted a bank and turned over, throwing him through the windscreen.

He suffered terrible head injuries and was not expected to live. After four days in a coma in intensive care at Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge, his family were told he was clinically dead and that his life support system would be switched off.

But incredibly, not only did Ben survive, but he battled his way back to complete his college course and be presented with a Registered Nursing Homes Association Award for his progress in his studies.

His father, farmer David Rowlinson, said: "You should have heard the roar when he received his prize. It was just so emotional. The college was fantastic. If they hadn't persevered with him, he wouldn't have got to where he is today. "

Ben's accident shocked everyone who knew him. "They even shut the college down for a day," Mr Rowlinson recalled. "Three or four days after he'd been in hospital, they said he was going to die. We had said goodbye - we even arranged his funeral.

"They were going to turn his machine off at midnight that night. He was brain dead - that was what they said. Then about 20 minutes later they called to say he had moved and was still alive."

The family were told that Ben would be very badly brain damaged and be unable to walk again. But his recovery confounded all predictions.

Ben said: "As soon as I woke up I wanted to leave hospital, get back on with my vocation. Obviously I couldn't do that, but that's how I saw it. I thought the sooner I get better, the sooner I can get on with things."

After four months in hospital he went home. He underwent occupational therapy, but became increasingly bored and frustrated.

"I had a lot of time at home, having people looking after me. It's quite a humiliating thing - you're 18 or 19 years old and you're having to be constantly watched."

After six months at home, Ben got his wish - he went back to college to resume his NVQ care course. At first, he admits, it was hard going. "I had no concentration whatsoever. I would just drift off if somebody was speaking to me.

"The first year when I started back at college I didn't really do that much. I just went along to lessons. I never did any homework. But in the second year I got it together and I was getting work done."

Today Ben Rowlinson has made an almost complete recovery, with a slowness of speech only noticed by his family and those who knew him before the accident.

The Tomlinson Report, published last year, called for improved support for the estimated 130,000 people with learning difficulties or disabilities in post-compulsory education. At its heart the report held the concept of "inclusive learning" which means colleges adapting to students' needs.

Staff at West Suffolk College were able to do this for Ben Row-linson to help nurture him back into his studies.

His tutor, Linda Wade, lecturer in health and social studies, says special care was taken to give him one-to-one attention and to help him through the NVQ assessment paperwork.

"The way they're written isn't exactly user-friendly," she said. "So we had to help him to by-pass all that. And we had to encourage him and motivate him. The first year was very, very difficult. But suddenly it was as though he'd got the bit between his teeth."

Another aspect of the course that helped Ben was his work experience as a carer at the college's Minden House, working with groups of students with severe learning difficulties. Ben found he could empathise with the students because of his own ordeal.

West Suffolk's approach to supporting students with special needs and disabilities was recently singled out for praise by inspectors. The college screens students for basic skills needs. They are then supported in their vocational area by a designated tutor.

Jenny Bower, the college's learning support co-ordinator, said: "Identification is the key thing because you can talk to students before they come in, particularly if they've got an impairment or a disability which we might have to put some money into, providing them with some equipment or adapting the building.

"Obviously we want to make the curriculum accessible for students. It's not a question of diluting it - it's a question of making sure we don't handicap them when they're trying to learn, and that we also support them."

The Tomlinson Report also called for new funding to help colleges support students in this way. Is it happening? Geoff Daniels, assistant director of the Further Education Funding Council, says its funding mechanism includes an element of "additional support" for students with learning difficulties or disabilities.

"We have extended the scope of additional support in line with the Tomlinson recommendations, and I know West Suffolk does do a lot of work using those additional support funds to make the curriculum accessible for students like Ben Rowlinson. Colleges are really only able to do that because they have the ability to use these funds that Tomlinson has asked us to extend, which we've done."

He said the FEFC would soon be announcing the allocation of a "substantial" sum for a national staff development programme to promote inclusive learning.

Ben Rowlinson completed his NVQ last summer. He now has a job as a health-care support worker with Mid Anglia Health Trust. He is driving again, he has a girlfriend and hopes to buy a house.

"I've got a job, I've got my award and I got my NVQ," he said. "The whole world is my oyster."

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