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Inspire and aim higher

A buzz is generating around a three-year initiative that is likely to affect the lives of 20,000 youths with learning disabilities. It aims to improve their skills, confidence and employability. Douglas Blane discovers more.

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A buzz is generating around a three-year initiative that is likely to affect the lives of 20,000 youths with learning disabilities. It aims to improve their skills, confidence and employability. Douglas Blane discovers more.

The coloured balloons, carrying the youngsters' anxieties written on little cards, soar skyward with satisfying speed and drift quickly away on the wind, over the White Cart Water. It is a memorable moment and a nice image in the mind, which should help when those anxieties next come calling, say fifth-year pupils at Mary Russell School attending a course to boost their skills, confidence and employability.

Run by Enable Scotland and Mencap - sister charities for young people with learning disabilities - Inspire Me is a three-year initiative that aims to support 20,000 young people, aged 16-25, across the UK, says Enable project manager Jane Nicol. "These are tough times and young people with a learning disability are twice as likely not to be engaged in education, employment or training as those without," she says. "We are providing them with activities to help them learn new skills, build their confidence and lead the life they choose."

The pupils at Mary Russell School, Paisley, who took part in last session's workshops are now ambassadors for the project and their school.

"I'm more confident than I used to be," says Ryan Perratt. "I feel better in myself. We have been meeting a whole lot of new people and talking to them, telling them about the project."

"It has been good," says Matthew Knowles. "Being an ambassador is about learning to be confident and to talk to people. My family says I have changed a lot."

A recent conference gave the young ambassadors a chance to shine. "We were doing workshops with adults, getting them to try some of the things they got us to do last year," says Lyndzi Thomson. "It was quite hard but it was good. We are not used to talking to a lot of people at a time."

The event was Enable Scotland's annual conference, explains Nikki Slowey, who works for the charity. "The Inspire Me team wanted to tell members and friends about the project. The young people delivered a workshop. Everyone came away with a good understanding of where the funding was going and what the project was about. From their comments, people were clearly inspired by the young ambassadors. It was an amazing event."

Activities organised for the adults included several that the youngsters had taken part in themselves, during workshops. "We did the balloon release but we didn't have time to do the mummy game," says ambassador Sarah Coutts. "That's where you wrap people up in toilet paper. It's great fun."

The balloon release may look fun, but it has a serious side, says Helen McMillan. "When you let it go, your feelings are supposed to go with it. I remember one woman wrote `I miss my friend'."

Fun medium but serious message is the philosophy of the workshops, says Inspire Me coordinator Cheryl Elliot. "Sitting around a table doing worksheets would not work with these youngsters," she days. "So we talk with them. We split them up for group activities. We bring them together again. We do ice-breakers to get to know each other and relax. That is when learning works best. You get to know them as individuals."

Finding positive destinations for youngsters with learning difficulties, when they do leave school, is getting harder, says depute head Julie McCallum. "We had a supported employment facility in Renfrewshire until last year, but the funding has gone. In terms of employment opportunities for young people with additional support needs, that has been a big loss."

Pupils are often not ready for the workplace on leaving, she says, though there has been a change in recent years. Some of the credit for new-found self-belief and confidence to present themselves goes to the school, she says: "The new curriculum has made a difference. Children are more involved with decision-making, so across the board here I see pupils more confident in their learning, and in talking about their learning, than ever before."

But there is no doubt in her mind that the work of Enable Scotland over the past four years - through Inspire Me and other projects to prepare pupils for life and work - has made a big difference.

"Even just a couple of years ago, I wouldn't have thought they could go to a national conference and deliver workshops," she adds. "That's phenomenal."

Once motivated and equipped with new skills - and made aware of skills they possess already - youngsters do not have to wait for employment opportunities, says project manager Jane Nicol. "We show them they can go out and help people right now, through voluntary work."

Enable Scotland staff, and the young people they work with, devise ideas for local community projects and present them at a Dragons' Den, seeking Inspire Me support, she explains. "They do the planning, rather than just turning up and doing what we ask. So they buy into it."

Partnering with other organisations is a key feature of these community impact projects. "Last year, the Ayrshire group ran one that involved safety training with the local fire station and gardening with Impact Arts. I thought they would just be mowing lawns and planting a few flowers. But they were going into gardens of vulnerable tenants, with grass up to here, and totally transforming them. Their commitment was immense."

So far, the Inspire Me workshops have been delivered mainly in schools. But the plan is to offer them also to young people in other locations, she says. "We have been delivering in Reid Kerr College and are now moving into Telford College. We are looking at other groups, too, who are not in education or employment.

"Every young person is different. We see them as a person first, before the disability. That's not just a slogan. It's how we feel. We use the same basic programme for all our workshops, but we adapt them to suit the individuals taking part."

Back at Mary Russell School, the individuals who took part in last year's workshops, and are now ambassadors, have their thoughts on the future, they say.

"I have been accepted by Cardonald College to do learning for work," says Ryan. "I'm hoping to go on and do journalism there. I have always wanted to be a journalist."

"We have enjoyed our time at Mary Russell," says Sarah, who is also headed for Reid Kerr. "There are good teachers here."

"But it's time to go," says Helen.


"Would you rather be an apple or a banana?" is a question that rarely arises in normal conversation. But as an ice-breaker, at the start of the second workshop at Mary Russell School, it gets the students thinking, talking, laughing aloud and moving around. "Apples line up here," says Inspire Me coordinator Ashley Ryan. "Bananas over there.

"Now would you rather be hairy all over or completely bald? Hairy over there. Bald over here."

Other dilemmas include most popular or smartest, always cold or always hot, and no TV or no fast food.

"That means no more takeaways, no sweets and no Mars bars - forever," Cheryl Elliot explains. "I see some of you changing your minds at the mention of Mars bars," she laughs.

Ms Ryan makes a learning point before the students resume their seats around the large table. "You see what happened? You made choices. Sometimes you were together. Sometimes you were separate. It's all about you and your own choice."

"You won't always have the same opinions as your friends," Ms Elliot adds. "And that is fine."

A quick recap follows of the previous week's activities and the ideas behind them - working together, how to look confident, how to stand tall, hold heads high and make eye contact with people. Then it's the balloon release, with the youngsters taking time first to decide which part of their inner lives they would most like to write on a card and see soaring over the trees.

Back in the lounge, pairs of pupils are set the task of finding a descriptive word from each letter of their names. This is fine for common letters such as h - helpful, happy and l - loving, likeable. But young Alex has a problem at the end of her name, which creates puzzlement at first, then discussion and in the end a creative solution - xtra.

Along with focusing young minds on themselves and their personal qualities, this is the point of the exercise. An effective workshop is a creative mix of careful planning and spontaneity, explains Ms Elliot.

"We have access to workshop materials, which we studied, but we also devise our own. Every group is different. So is every individual. You learn all about them. You adapt."

Learning objectives and planning are essential for a good workshop, but sticking rigidly to the plan is not, says Ms Ryan. "You use different ice- breakers and deliver in a different way to make it accessible."

That ability to get to know an audience, and adapt to their needs and interests, comes with experience and with time spent with one group of learners, says Cheryl - which the five-hour format and weekly sessions of the Inspire Me workshops provide. "It gives you time to build the relationships you need to make this work," she says.

"We are not their teachers and we are not exactly their friends. It's a different relationship from either, but it's one that works well."

ENABLE Scotland and Mencap were the Co-operative groups Charity of the Year in 2011. The money raised through that partnership - pound;7 million - is funding Inspire Me across the UK.


1.5 million people in the UK have a learning disability.

ENABLE Scotland:

- campaigns for people who have learning disabilities to live full and independent lives;

- provides services, information and advice;

- is a member-led organisation with local branches of volunteers, mostly people with a learning disability, their families and carers.

Photo by James Glossop

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