When learning difficulties are profound, every moment becomes an important opportunity to reinforce skills. Susannah Kirkman reports
How do you teach students who have profound disabilities and learning difficulties? Everyone talks about the life-saving importance of education, but they are still among the most ostracised and least confident members of society.
To meet their needs, residential schools are developing a "waking hours"
curriculum offering seamless joins between class and leisure time and teaching and care staff.
"There is no quick fix," says Keith Salmon, the head of Broughton House College in Lincolnshire, which caters for students aged 16 to 30 who have autism and severely challenging behaviour. It is one of only a few institutions to provide education beyond the age of 19 for people with severe learning disabilities.
"Some of our young people have been to a string of different schools and care providers. When they arrive here, they have very low self-esteem and need absolute consistency to help them improve their social and communication skills."
The general and therapeutic care and education staff jointly prepare individual learning plans with targets which span the whole day and are involved in meticulously monitoring and recording progress.
Communication is particularly important: the aggressive behaviour which students sometimes display is often the result of frustration at their inability to convey their feelings and needs. All the staff are trained to encourage communication, including speech, "sign-along" and the use of symbols and representational objects.
Dame Hannah Rogers School in Ivybridge, Devon, uses a similar approach. It recently had its third "outstanding" Ofsted report for its work with 10- to 19-year-olds who have profound physical disabilities and communication needs.
"Communication is part of everyday life," said Faye Arnold, the school's speech and language therapist. "If we worked with the students for just half an hour a week, we wouldn't achieve much."
The care staff, as well as contributing to students' individual education plans, receive weekly training in the communication systems used at the school.
Communicating effectively at meal times is vital. Most students have cerebral palsy and could suffocate if they were to swallow food incorrectly. "More" and "stop" are the most important symbols used in the dining room.
One of the main aims at Dame Hannah Rogers is to offer students choices in all areas of their lives and to give them the skills to express their wishes and needs.
"Our staff are tuned in to the students," says Angela Murray, the school's director of education and care, "but they need to learn to articulate their wishes more widely."
As part of the education programme, some older students run a sandwich enterprise and learn to sign "Who wants sandwiches?" as they deliver them around the school. And one student has prepared a PowerPoint presentation showing that singing and friends are important to her. She will take it on visits to colleges when looking for her next placement.
At the heart of the waking hours curriculum is the ability to transfer skills to another context, which is something people with autism, who fear new experiences, find extremely difficult. Students at Broughton House regularly make contact with the local community, enjoying shopping, swimming and visits to the pub. Many have a paper round as part of their work experience and one attends a Skills for Life course at an FE college.
The students' progress requires the constant reinforcement of new skills throughout the day and the regular setting of new targets by education and care staff. Every opportunity is carefully planned and the students take many tiny steps to achieve their goals. Initially, they may need constant two-to-one support from care staff before they can progress to greater independence, perhaps living in a group home in the community.
Dame Hannah Rogers students are also carefully prepared for the leap to adult services. While some go on to residential colleges at 19, others may not find a placement which offers education. "There is a black hole in provision for students aged 19-plus with severe disabilities," says Mrs Murray.