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Out of the dark and into the classroom

High-quality care work with some long-neglected elderly people has brought Chichester college a well-deserved beacon award. Ngaio Crequer reports

George loves college. Even before breakfast he has his coat on, ready to go. He is chatty, and grins a lot. He tells his friends about "the girl who gave me a look" and chuckles at the memory.

George, 85, was incarcerated as a child in a secure mental hospital. Only recently, on the closure of the hospital, was he transferred to a care home. And, for the first time in his life, he ceased to be someone who had simply been forgotten by the authorities.

"We haven't the faintest idea why he was put in a hospital to begin with," said Margaret Hibbert, manager of Ashbury care home in Pease Pottage, West Sussex. "He has never been taught to read or write. But somebody had shown him how to put an X."

Marion thinks she is 60 but is clearly much older. She came with a care plan - of sorts - that said she was deaf. "But she does not appear to be so," said Ms Hibbert.

And there are more extraordinary stories. There is the 77-year-old who was locked away at seven because she had a learning difficulty and her mother could not cope with her screaming attacks. And there are the "wayward children", whose crime was to give birth to an "illegitimate" child - the father being the favourite uncle. In many cases, the women themselves were "illegitimate".

George and his friends left their darkness when they entered the home. By chance, the home owner had been at school with Debbie Bagnall, curriculum team manager for students with learning disabilities at Chichester college.

The college has devised a programme to help the residents, aged between 74 and 87, to improve their basic skills, boost their confidence and aid their social integration. For that work, it is this year's winner of the TESAoC Beacon Award for widening participation.

"There were no care plans," said Ms Bagnall. "They had no history. We saw people just rocking in the corner all day."

Some 40 to 50 residents were locked in a room, not communicating. They were given no activities and spent their time wandering around.

These people had not all been born with a learning disability, but they soon developed one on account of the lack of stimulation and institutionalisation.

"It was just assumed that they could not learn anything," said Ms Hibbert.

Some residents had relatives who had not known where they were. One man, James, had a sister who did not know of his existence for 52 years.

Staff at the college assessed their new students in their home and then at the college to find out what they were capable of.

"It was very difficult," said Ms Bagnall. "Some had real language problems, and some could not speak at all."

Lis Bates, director of curriculum development, said: "We looked to see if they could communicate in other ways. We look for any kind of response - it might be just a blink of an eye."

The students followed the adult pre-entry curriculum, specially designed for people with learning difficulties. They follow courses in art, music, movement, crafts, and a course called Nature's Way, which includes handling animals.

"We have a hidden curriculum," said Graham Pitney, who has taught people with learning difficulties for more than 30 years.

"There are independence skills built into the sessions. Just encouraging someone to take responsibility for getting their own drink from a machine can be real progress."

Some residents have not spoken in years. They communicate with a grunt, or simply point if they want something.

"We try to get them to talk to each other and to the staff," said Mr Pitney.

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