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On the road to a new start

A course designed to teach fresh skills to people with brain injuries is transforming lives. Martin Whittaker reports

A new college course is giving people with severe brain injuries access to further education to help improve their quality of life and chances of independence.

Most students on the course run by Somerset college of arts and technology in Taunton have suffered severe head injuries or had strokes. Some of their tutors have also been through rehabilitation following a brain injury, giving them an understanding of their students' needs in the classroom.

A recent inspection by the Office for Standards in Education gave the college a grade 2 for its work with students with learning difficulties and disabilities. Inspectors described the specialist courses for people with profound learning difficulties and acquired brain injury as innovative.

Peter Tester teaches the course's computer class on Monday afternoons. He used to run a computer programming business until he was badly hurt in a road accident 11 years ago. After five months in hospital he has made a slow recovery and has had to re-learn his IT skills. College staff encouraged him to become a tutor and he has gained further education teaching qualifications. "It does give me a great empathy with the students," he says.

He has seen great progress in students' communication skills since the course began in September 2002. And teaching them to use IT and the internet can greatly improve their quality of life, he says.

Last year, he asked his students to write and present their life story using Powerpoint. Now they are learning how to use internet search engines and have to come up with a topic. One student is researching the composer Bach, another her family tree.

The college also does outreach work in care homes. "Unfortunately some homes don't have computer access," says Mr Tester. "There are public libraries where people can access the internet, but unless you can get to these places, that's not an option."

Julia Prince, who runs the course, says despite physical disabilities and communication difficulties, some students are very able and can teach others.

A big emphasis is placed on peer support. Students work as a group and are encouraged to help each other - one student is teaching another to read.

"It's very much joint learning," she says. "We have a model which we feel is quite vital - we aim to involve people with brain injury in delivering to learners."

The course has grown out of Enhancing Quality of Life, a project run by the National Bureau for Students with Disabilities (Skill), the University of Cambridge and the Learning and Skills Development Agency.

Part of the project's aim was to develop partnerships across sectors to help people with profound learning difficulties go to college. Somerset was one of the pilot colleges and extended its provision to offer a specialist course for people with acquired brain injury after links with local hospital and care homes highlighted a need.

College staff have had specialist training through collaboration with the head injuries unit at nearby Musgrove Park hospital.

The LSC-funded course is free. Its main aim is to develop students'

communication through sessions in art, craft and IT.

Students can choose which sessions they attend and they set their own targets each term. Eight years ago the Tomlinson report, Inclusive Learning, said people with learning difficulties were under-represented in FE. But according to the Learning and Skills Development Agency, there are still major gaps in provision across the country,.

The brain injury association Headway says education is an essential part of rehabilitation, but is often delayed or neglected. Meanwhile, advances in medicine have meant that the number of people who survive brain damage has increased.

"Twenty years ago people with severe head injuries would usually have died," says Michael Timmins, Headway's spokesman. "But with advances in neurosurgery people are increasingly surviving."

He welcomes courses like that at Somerset college. "It's about rebuilding self-esteem. Often people's confidence takes quite a knock when they realise what their capabilities are after a brain injury."

Liz Maudslay of Skill says: "Individuals and individual colleges are probably making enormous efforts with individual learners. But the area requires more attention on a national level.

"Like all specialist areas it requires the expertise of other agencies.

"It pays to have organisations like Headway working with teachers - because teachers cannot do it all."

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