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Essex college collects second training award

South East Essex College has won its second national training award, this time for the provision of education for the hearing impaired. The Department of Employment sponsors the awards now in their eighth year for "exceptionally effective training which has led to demonstrable improvements in performance". The department recognised the Southend college's efforts to integrate special needs students, writes Harvey McGavin.

Last year the college won an award for its innovative work-related catering course for students with learning difficulties. The new awards were announced this week by Employment Secretary Michael Portillo.

College principal Tony Pitcher is delighted by the award, but says that it has come only as the result of much hard work and dedication from his staff. "It is expensive to provide communicators and teachers of the deaf to support the students. We have only been able to do that because we took the view that it is also very important.

"In the past students have not been given adequate provision because it has been seen as too difficult. You can't do that; you have to come up with a solution that's a sensible use of resources, to try to work out what's best for them.

"We have moved away from the traditional approach. We don't need a large number of teachers of the deaf - we need communicators when the students need them; that is, at the right time and the right place."

Since incorporation, argues Tony Pitcher, funding changes have meant some colleges putting less priority on special needs. However, South East Essex, which has nearly 4,000 full-timers and provides more than half the post-16 education in the area, is attracting more students with special needs because of its reputation.

The college's learning support manager Kathy Hayes thinks too many students with learning difficulties or disabilities are automatically put on to "special" courses when they have the potential to succeed on mainstream courses.

"Three years ago students were being directed on to bridge courses because they were deaf," she says.

"Now we try to integrate them wherever possible and deal with them as individuals.

"They need extra support, and they are quite often restricted in their vocabulary. They have to work much harder and be very determined."

A team of four communicators and a teacher of the deaf were appointed to help students with note-taking, lip-speaking, and interpretation in classes and tutorials.

The college won the award on the strength of a 12-minute video documentary put together by BTEC media students in which special needs students talked about their experiences at the college. One, a registered blind boy, is taking an A-level in English and hopes to go on to university while another mature student, severely injured in a car accident and now unable to speak, is following a computer studies course.

The college has about 100 students with special needs, ranging from severe physical disabilities to dyslexia. Last year 10 profoundly or severely deaf students enrolled on a variety of mainstream courses including BTEC National Diplomas, NVQs and Diplomas in Nursery Nursing. No one dropped out and, of the 10, one is now a teacher, another is in full-time employment in catering and the rest are continuing in education. All of which is testament to the team's intention of making the college more "deaf aware".

"It was a matter of creating a more welcoming environment," explains Kathy Hayes. To this end, staff in the reception areas and shop were taught basic Sign language and classes were set up for local people to come in and learn. A three-day induction course for all new students emphasises the college's policy of positive discrimination.

Twenty-year-old Nicola Bedwell is studying for a BTEC in business and leisure and hopes to find work in sports administration. "When I was at school the deaf teacher was not always there for you. Sometimes, when the teacher talked, it was difficult to know what was going on."

Her classmate, Tara Speechley, 18, went to a school where Signing was forbidden. "I'm very deaf and having someone to take notes and explain things more fully really helps. I get on well with the other students and it's much better than the last place I went to."

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