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Hideaway college reaches out

Adults with learning difficulties are getting a tailor-made service. Martin Whittaker reports

Orchard Hill College is not the easiest place to find. Tucked away up a long driveway winding past a new up-market housing estate and through wooded parkland, it occupies a group of red-brick buildings that were once part of a children's hospital.

This geographical isolation from the nearby town of Carshalton, Surrey, is a contradiction of the ethos of the college.

"We see our role not only in teaching, but also in trying to get the outside world to understand our students a bit more," says principal Caroline Allen.

Orchard Hill is a very unusual further education college, specialising in teaching adults with profound and complex learning difficulties and disabilities. Many students are wheelchair-bound, unable to move or speak and needing high levels of support. Often their learning difficulties or disabilities are combined with mental health problems, autism, visual or hearing impairments and sometimes highly challenging behaviour.

Orchard Hill is blazing a trail in opening up opportunities for adults whose ability to learn would once have been overlooked. The college welcomes visitors to try to break down barriers for its 200 students. People are coming in increasing numbers as the college's reputation grows.

The college provides full and part-time courses tailormade to each student's needs. They include communication, life skills, creative and cultural studies, basic skills, science and technology, community studies and physical education. On the day of The TES's visit students were learning about textures; a cooking class was in session, while another group of students was about to be put into teams to play a communication game.

The college was founded in 1983 as a joint venture between the London borough of Sutton and the local health authority. It survived cuts in the 90s and since the arrival of the Learning and Skills Council has been more secure. The college is local-authority maintained, its courses are funded by the LSC while the former hospital buildings are still owned by the health service. Half the students live on site. The rest travel in from Sutton and neighbouring boroughs.

There are plans to move to a more central location, something Caroline Allen and her staff would welcome. "People perceive the college in terms of health care rather than education, and that's really not what we're about," she says. "The students should be recognised as adults and learners in their own right."

One of the college's secrets has been its partnership approach. Following a franchise agreement four years ago, it now works closely with nearby Carshalton College - senior management of both colleges are represented on each other's committees. Carshalton draws funding from the local LSC and pays Orchard Hill, and therefore is responsible for the audit trail, leaving the specialist college free to focus on providing its service. The benefits work in Carshalton's favour too. Its newly-qualified teachers get experience working with complex physical and mental learning difficulties.

Orchard Hill also works hard to take its students out to local FE colleges and schools to help break down barriers and encourage progression - but this is not easy. "Our students find those environments very difficult," says Caroline Allen. "They are very loud and it can be quite daunting seeing all these people coming at you. In the longer term we hope to be able to open more doors for our students by having that strong mainstream link."

Orchard Hill has a high staff-student ratio. There are 38 teachers and teaching aides offering the 200 students high levels of support. "The lecturers are well-qualified and they need to be," says Caroline Allen. "We have found that where they have staff covering who haven't got that kind of qualification, they don't have the structure in their heads to manage what can often be quite a difficult situation."

The college has led the way with many national initiatives, including the development of a pre-entry curriculum in literacy and numeracy for adults. Orchard Hill also offers short courses for parents and practitioners. Ms Allen and her staff are currently concentrating on improving assessment. "We're looking at being much more specific about objectives, so that they're worded in a very specific way. We know what we mean, but someone else might come in and say that's not measurable.

"And that way we can really check that students are progressing. Because some people do think you can't teach people at those levels."

Dr David Watkins, principal of Carshalton College, believes Orchard Hill represents a good model for the rest of the sector. "While this college does a lot of work with severe and moderate learning difficulty students, what we're not geared up to is the full range of some of the profound and multiple learning difficulty students.

"So by working together it ensures that between us we can cover the full range of opportunity. Rather than us trying to do everything and them trying to do everything, they do what they're good at and we do what we're good at.

"Between us we can make the best provision for a section of society which, with the best will in the world, doesn't very often get the educational opportunities or the access."

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