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Blooming with confudence

Jerome Monahan visits a college that prepares students for independent living

Jason Bloxham, 18, works at Carroll's florist and greengrocers in Bexhill, East Sussex. He loves helping people with their shopping, although he sometimes finds it hard to understand customers if they speak too quickly.

He is a valued member of the shop's serving team, having been there a year -doubling up his one-day a week placement with a Saturday job.

Jason's success, explains his manager, Jay Carroll, is largely down to his own work ethic and eagerness to please. It is also the product of the care and effort his college - St Mary's Wrestwood in Bexhill - has put into the work experience element of their courses. It is a core part of the students' "waking curriculum" designed to help prepare them for the highest level of independent living and working they can achieve given their learning and communication difficulties.

St. Mary's is a non-maintained (residential and day) special school. Most of the pupils have a primary speech andor language impairment coupled with physical, medical, moderate learning and social communication difficulties.

"Arranging effective work placements is challenging enough for mainstream pupils," explains Wendy Rawson, one of the work experience co-ordinators at St Mary's.

"It needs highly specialist handling to ensure it suits our students and the challenge has grown given our recent rapid growth."

The college, just five years old, has seen its roll expand from six to sxity students, a rate that has strained its network of sympathetic work experience providers, forcing it to seek new placements with a broader range of employers.

"Our students traditionally work in local cafes, kitchens, bakers and care homes," says Nigel Willis, head of the college. "Over the last year we have expanded our connections with the hospitality trade, securing placements in local bed and breakfasts and one large hotel.

"We have also forged a relationship with the Hilton group resulting in their providing pound;27,000 to refurbish a kitchen in one of our two independent living houses in the townto a standard enabling it to double up for use on the GNVQ foundation course in hospitality and catering."

"Hotel work can be ideal for many of our students," adds Wendy Rawson.

"First, there are a number of tasks that students can take on - enabling them to pick an activity that suits them. Also, many of the jobs rely on repetition and attention to detail and this can particularly benefit young people on the autistic spectrum."

Jordan Poulet-Hector, 18, had an opportunity to test a number of jobs at the Cooden Beach hotel, including restaurant work, finally finding his niche in the onsite sports club and swimming pool.

"I like working here," he explains. "It has helped my confidence ."

Jordan has benefited from the hotel's induction training which being interactive and video-based proved an ideal means of conveying the health and safety messages he needed to grasp. Such onsite support is an important work experience element that St Mary's looks for when setting up placements.

It is a view endorsed by the principal David Cassar: "Our students do not have obvious outward signs of their extra needs. Their often complex communication difficulties need to be met with care and patience." The college undertakes a careful vetting of likely work experience situations before any placement.

"It is important to trust your instincts and pick up on any lack of empathy," says Ms Rawson. "I was told by a charity shop manager recently that she wouldn't have the time to support 'those kinds of people'.

"Happily, such responses are rare. We also ensure our students will get a rich experience and not find themselves relegated to performing tasks that don't stretch them."

Auditing placements is just one of the ways in which St Mary's ensures its programme is effective. The process begins with the students themselves, as soon as they join the college.

"The first thing is to ask them what they would like to do," says Sally-Ann Morris, who has overall responsibility for the work experience programme.

"This can sometimes mean scaling down their ambitions, but it can also involve us in encouraging them to take on a range of additional responsibilities - for example, travelling independently. There is sometimes a job to be done preparing parents for their child's placement and the attendant challenges it can confront them with."

At St Mary's there are regular weekly meetings for all involved in work experience and relevant specialist therapeutic staff to assess how every placement is going. St Mary's are also committed to working closely with potential employers to provide them with the kind of training that will make their placement work with the college's students much more effective.

Back at Carroll's, Jason is preparing himself for moving to London and new studies for sports and signing qualifications. He will miss his placement.

"They treat me kindly here," he says.

St Mary' College is a recent development of St Mary's school which was founded in 1922. Email:

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