College singled out as 'exemplary'

Britain's role in the European Year of Lifelong Learning is drawing praise

The Adult College in Lancaster is "special" because it makes learning fun, the staff say. And they should know: they are all entitled to join a class, free of charge, a year.

"It's a very cheap form of staff development," Peter Garrod, the principal, explained. "It's so obvious. They experience what it's like to be a student and they can develop other skills. We have worked hard at ensuring that part-timers feel part of the establishment. Now there's a buzz, a real buzz among them. Morale is very high and the commitment is better than anywhere I've ever worked."

The college, housed in an attractive stone-built refurbished linoleum factory on the canal-side, was given a highly favourable report by Her Majesty's Inspectorate last year.

The Office for Standards in Education praised its "exemplary" work with students with disabilities, learning difficulties and mental health problems.

Christine Hartley, the tutor responsible for special needs, said the college was well on the way to providing totally inclusive learning as recommended in the recent report by the Tomlinson committee. About 300 students of all ages and a variety of handicaps study there. Some are taught separately, but always with a view to progressing to mainstream classes when they feel ready.

They are encouraged to join fellow students in the airy gallery cafe that adjoins the study room and the advice and guidance centre.

Jeremy Braund, who looks after students with mental health problems, finds the college management structure helpful in giving them support. And its relatively small size makes communication between staff much easier.

"If we have an aggressive student, tutors are willing to find out the reasons and the staff who teach the special needs students separately take part in the mainstream meetings."

Mr Braund and Ms Hartley are part of the senior management group. "That makes a huge difference," he said.

The college curriculum is divided into eight programme areas, each with a leader. They hold a termly meeting, and the part-timers - 165 out of the 200 staff - are paid to attend.

At the end of each term, a full staff meeting ends with a seasonal buffet. "It sounds trivial, but it's a chance to mix and meet each other," said Pat Wingrave, the vice-principal. Now all the staff join in, including the caterers. "It's cheaper than management course fees, and we get more out of it."

The college ran its third two-week summer school this year, which began as a special needs initiative and is now completely integrated. A Saturday school offers families with children over eight the chance to paint and make pots together, while younger children are taken care of in the nursery.

The school, which began two years ago on a small scale, has grown incredibly, said Ms Hartley, adding that it is a good way of testing courses. Some of the courses last for five weeks, others are just a one-off: making Christmas cards and decorations, or learning the dances that featured in Pride and Prejudice, for example. A new heritage centre offers students the chance to learn the old weaving crafts for which the area was once famous.

Lancaster is collaborating with colleges in Ireland and Spain in an European Union Socrates project that will lead to arts festivals involving disabled, deaf and blind students. Ms Hartley said drama was an underpinning methodology in her work with handicapped people as it was an effective means of communication that they enjoyed.

The inspectors' report noted: "A group of young adults with learning difficulties displayed impressive poise, control, sound memory and acting ability in their dramatised extract from Romeo and Juliet".

Apart from the main building in the town centre, the college operates on 30 other sites, many in isolated rural areas. Ms Wingrave recalls that soon after moving there she was held up by a rabbit, which was a change from motoring round London's south circular for 18 years.

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