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Lunch Bunch caters for leaders

An enterprise venture is enabling students with mild to moderate learning difficulties to develop a taste for management

An enterprise venture is enabling students with mild to moderate learning difficulties to develop a taste for management

There are libraries of books about it and smooth-talking gurus get paid squillions for dispensing their philosophies on how to manage. But 19-year-old Mark Groundwater seems to have cracked it after less than two years at college.

The former Banff Academy pupil is in his second year of a training programme for students with mild to moderate learning difficulties at Banff and Buchan College in Fraserburgh. It's a student enterprise venture and part of a redeveloped extension course, now called Towards Employment.

This morning, Mark is duty manager in charge of The Lunch Bunch, a catering business he and 11 classmates run once a week when they take over one of the college restaurants. The snow held him up as he battled from home in Aberchirder to Fraserburgh, but the team has coped until his arrival and he's pleased.

Plus, the steak pie with mash and broccoli is delicious - tasty comfort food for a cold day and a cut above the usual canteen offering.

"They were just amazing and I am so chuffed they managed to get on, and I've hardly had to say a thing to them," says Mark, as his classmates work away diligently.

Students share the lunchtime roles on rotation and run the business under supervision - budgeting and buying food, preparing, cooking and serving it. They take turns at being manager and Mark favours a micro-management style. He sums up his approach with enviable clarity: "Don't boss your team too much, make sure they've got what they need and help them out if they are struggling."

The man who inspires students like Mark is Jim Saunders, the college's supported education manager, who developed this programme and ensures everything runs smoothly in the kitchen.

There are twenty-two 16 to 19-year-olds taking the two-year course, which ran as a pilot last year and was highly commended at Scotland's Colleges Awards in November.

The beauty of the course is that instead of learning subjects in isolation, core subjects such as maths, computing and communication are directly linked into the students' lunchtime business operation.

"In computing they are making up flyers to advertise this service, they make up their price lists and do all of their planning for today. In maths they do all their costing in their cash book," Mr Saunders explains.

He spent 17 years in the hospitality and catering industry, but returned to study 10 years ago when he decided to teach. For his dissertation he researched training opportunities in hospitality for people with learning disabilities. He was inspired to set up this venture after visiting a project called The Engine Shed in Edinburgh, which employed staff with learning difficulties in a bakery and cafe.

And he's seen changes in the youngsters since the programme began here. "There's been a great increase in their confidence and self-esteem and a development in their communication skills," he says. "You see them all there working as a team, and when you think back, that's all skills that they have developed," he says.

A tall, graceful girl with her hair scooped back into a cap is tidying up in the kitchen. Louise Wood, 19, left school after fourth year and has been studying catering, computing, maths and English.

"I like cooking the food and serving it to customers," she says. "I struggled at school - stuff was going on in my house so I couldn't cope with it and I struggled. I'm in a foster placement and it's better now."

Another student, Cara Davidson, 19, is blossoming in this environment. The Lunch Bunch profits help to fund an international sports event planned in Norway in May, so there's an incentive to make it work. Cara can't wait to go

"I'm looking forward to it because it's the second time I've left my parents and they will be getting the flags out soon enough," she laughs. "They keep saying their little girl is growing up, but I'm saying `I'm not going yet.'"

These students came here once a week when they were at school, as part of the college's Links programme for pupils with mild to moderate learning difficulties at the college feeder schools. So the teenagers are among friends and take up where they left off at school. They can also enjoy practical subjects including art and design and painting and decorating, which link into the business enterprise curriculum.

And there are work placements: Mark works two days a week as a storeman at Highland Industrial Supplies, at its base in Turriff. Most students do one day a week on their placement and if they're lucky and show aptitude, they may be offered full-time jobs.

"My dad's a joiner and I would like to have done something along those lines," he says. "But I have a disability down my left side, so I struggle. That was since birth, but I very rarely let it affect my work. I would love to have done something on the joinery side with my dad, but the placement is the next best thing because I am actually working with the tools we sell for joiners," he smiles. "I normally find a way through it - there's very little stops me and because I am using the hand more, it's getting stronger."

Mark has great admiration for his boss, Douglas Lawie, at Highland Industrial Supplies. "I'd say he's a top role model," he says. "Just the kind of guy he is - he just tries his best for me to sort out things. He's just a cracker of a boss and it makes going to work easy."

Jean McLeish,

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