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Eager to offer a personalised life

Patrick Hayes on Wales's first FE centre for autistic students

"I've never seen a college like it!" says Kate Baldwin, staring at the newly-built, spacious classroom where she will soon teach and through the window at the sprawling green fields and sea view.

When it opens next week, Beechwood college will be the first college for people with autism and Asperger's syndrome in Wales. The college, in Sully in Vale of Glamorgan, will initially provide residential accommodation for 38 students aged 16 to 25 and employ almost 100 staff. Student fees will be met by their learning and skills councils.

Previously, Welsh autistic students have been forced to travel to England to attend suitable courses.

"We aim to fill the abyss that exists in Wales after people with autism and Asperger's syndrome leave school at 16," explains Chris Lovell, clinical director.

A team of experienced psychologists and teachers has provided detailed advice on how this "abyss" can be best filled. The scope and ambition of the development team is unprecedented. As principal Mark Hughes makes clear: "Unlike other colleges, there will be a 24-hour curriculum. We don't want to compartmentalise their education and aim to provide a completely holistic service."

One feature of autism and Asperger's syndrome is an inability to communicate and empathise effectively with others. As a result, teaching will be highly personalised. Teachers cannot assume that students will understand lessons in the way they intended.

Chris Lovell explains: "Unlike in a mainstream college, if there are 25 people in a class, then there will need to be 25 unique approaches to teach them."

Each student will have a timetable and resources designed to meet their individual needs. Knowledge of these needs will be developed through talking to the student's parents.

"The parent is the ultimate expert on the child," says Mark Hughes, "They know things it could take us weeks to discover and they will always be the first port of call. They will have as much access to their children as they want."

Dr Mike Fitzpatrick, GP and author of MMR and autism: What parents need to know, says many parents of autistic children find it difficult to stop being over-protective. "It is positive if the college can provide more independence to both the parents and their children," he says.

Although there is no cure for autism or Asperger's, great progress can be made with communication skills and integrating students into the community.

Life skills will be a crucial part of the curriculum. The college also hopes to organise jobs and housing when students leave at 25 and monitor their progress.

Jane Watkins, chief executive of Independent Community Living (Beechwood) Limited, the firm financing the college, is determined to ensure students get the best resources and opportunities: "We are all there for one solitary purpose, to enable students to develop skills that will enable them to communicate their aspirations, hopes and dreams and then try to realise them.

"The style and culture of the learning environment is absolutely important.

Unless we provide an environment that is most conducive to their development, then we hinder their progress."

Mark Hughes was overwhelmed by the number of applications for teaching posts. He selected a team of versatile teachers skilled in their subject, over those who had specialist knowledge of autistic students.

The college will have jet skis, a stable, a horticultural centre and a full range of musical, IT and arts equipment.

Teachers have been able visit Beechwood, which opens next week, and imagine what it will be like when students fill the classrooms and explore the large, leafy grounds.

Mark Hughes has been inspired by their enthusiastic responses: "Darren Jackson, the artistic director, painted a picture for me while walking to the nearby beach.

"He described students building sculptures with him in the sand with corrugated cardboard, while Lara, the music teacher, played her saxophone and the support workers set up a barbecue. The sun would be setting and the students would be looking out at its reflection on the sea."

This romantic image does not mean that the team are not fully aware of the reality of great challenges ahead, but they are confident that they are up to the task.

Darren Jackson claims: "I would have thought this project too risky had I not experienced Mark's achievements establishing another school."

"He has the dynamism; determination and passion that meant that I never had any doubt about committing to this project.

"I have no question in my mind that this is going to be a success story.

The only question will be how successful."

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