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Roots of success

A horticultural project is helping young people with complex learning difficulties to keep growing after their school years

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A horticultural project is helping young people with complex learning difficulties to keep growing after their school years

Young people with complex learning difficulties have few opportunities after school, so they often end up sitting in the house, says Frances McCay. "It doesn't have to be like that."

A transition project led by Linburn School, where she is depute head, and Fair Deal, a Glasgow support organisation for people with learning disabilities, is demonstrating what can be done - and what these youngsters are capable of when offered opportunities.

"We tend to put them in a box and think about what they can't do," says Fair Deal's Ann Marie Docherty. "If somebody's good at making coffee, we want to market them doing that. If they're great at making scones, we want to get them a job making scones. It doesn't matter if they can't clean the tables afterwards. People don't have to be able to do everything before they can move on."

At the Hidden Gardens in Pollokshields today, movement is largely confined to the workroom because it's damp and cold outside. "We are all going to be making Easter bouquets," says garden manager Jean Gavin. "So first we have to go round and pick our daffodils and greenery."

There's plenty of choice because plants from all over the world grow now in the Hidden Gardens. "They consulted the local community - the most diverse in Scotland - and asked what they wanted this space to be. They said a garden, a sanctuary space. Then they asked what they wanted in it," explains volunteer manager Andrea Gillespie.

"So we have native species, such as rowan, hawthorn and Scots pine, and all kinds of non-natives too, which people wanted planted because it reminded them of their origins. So we have bamboo, fatsia and the Bhutan pine over there, which was blown over last year in the hurricane. The soil is shallow because it's an old industrial site, but the plants grow well here."

From the large choice of greenery, the little Linburn School group, led by gardens volunteer Pauline Slaven and teacher Mariam Penta, pull off a few sprigs of fir and try them against their daffodils.

"Nice," says Alan Armstrong (S5).

"They get to do lots of exciting things because they're seniors," Ms Penta says.

"Yeah," Alan says, smiling.

"The idea is that they will still be able to come here, with a support worker, after they finish school," she says. "They enjoy it and they know what it's all about now, because they've been coming a long time. It's something they can do and are quite good at doing.

"We all come here on Monday. On Tuesday, they take part in a Cardonald College programme on travel, where they are learning skills such as catching a bus, using a bus pass and being out in the community with support."

Once all the young people have gathered big green leaves from the castor oil plant, for the back of their bouquets, it's time to head back into the warmth of the workroom. Asked if he's feeling the cold, Alan says: "I'm fine. I wish it would rain."

"You've got to be tough to work here," Mrs McCay says.

Lauren Hastie (S6) nods when asked if she's cold and points to a backstage pass around her neck.

"She's a big One Direction fan, aren't you?" says Ms Penta, and Lauren smiles.

"Lauren is non-verbal but she does sign," Mrs McCay says.

"See this young man - this is Conor. He was one of our original group last year. He's left school now but still comes to the gardens to work one day a week.

"I like digging things and cutting," Conor says. "I like the fresh air, getting outside. I grow vegetables."

"What kind of vegetables?" Mrs McCay prompts.

"Carrots, onions, potatoes," Conor replies. "I love mashed potatoes and stew. I like cooking. I go to college now to learn cooking skills. I talk to people there. Talk to everybody."

"What do we grow, Lauren?" garden manager Jean Gavin asks. "Can you sign for us? What was that thing that was small and hot?" Lauren signs a C, an H and an I and pauses. Then an L and an I.

"Chili. Well done, Lauren. We had a competition last summer to grow a very tall flower and Lauren won. Do you remember the name of the flower?"

Lauren signs a large circle for the sun. "She's a big asset," Mrs Gavin says. "I don't have much sign language, so Lauren is teaching me. If I'm not sure of the sign for a word, Lauren will show me it. So the learning is going both ways."

There are a limited number of awards available for people with learning disabilities, she says. "Some of those here today will be receiving awards next week from the Royal Caledonian Horticultural Society, which recognises achievement by people with learning disabilities. There'll be lots of the great and the good at the ceremony."

She laughs. "It's a big thing. We'll be getting out of our wellies and into nice dresses. Participants will be giving tours and seed-sowing workshops. Scott Green, a participant and a development worker for Fair Deal, will be giving a presentation. Scott's ambition is to continue gardening and gain an SVQ in garden design."

Recognition of achievement is important, Ms McCay says. "But opportunities for achieving and learning new skills are even more important. These children are going to small schools that are sheltered environments. But they have to function in the world. This is real work they're doing here. They can go out there and shift the compost, plant the seedlings, do the riddling, cut down branches."

Youngsters with complex learning needs are a small population, she adds. "So people in mainstream education often don't know about you. It can be depressing for mainstream kids to leave school and try to find work, but it's more so for our children. They're so busy in school their whole lives, then suddenly they leave and there's nothing out there for them."

Since April 2012, the Scottish government has guaranteed an offer of a place in education or training to every 16- to 19-year-old in Scotland, but this is much more problematic for her pupils, she says.

"We're asking ourselves where the opportunities are for our children. They are few and far between. This is one. It's practical, hands-on and skill- building. It's real jobs they can learn to do and can keep on doing with support, after school."

The social skills the youngsters learn are at least as valuable as the gardening experience, she says. "There's a wee barter system with the local cafes, where they can swap some of the vegetables they've grown for a cup of tea and a scone. Fair Deal now has a kitchen, so they're learning to cook as well as grow their food.

"It's not easy, but we are making progress, bit by bit, in finding and creating opportunities for our children."

The Hidden Gardens:

Royal Caledonian Horticultural Society Awards.

`We want them to move into society as our children do'

Fair Deal is a social enterprise and charity, set up in 1985, that supports people with learning disabilities.

"Until recent years, we've worked mainly with adults. But we decided to offer what we've got to people still at school and at the transition," says chief executive Ann Marie Docherty.

Personal development programmes help to structure the planning and activities for the young people.

"These are about helping people to develop skills in gardening and cooking," she says. "So we got funding to develop a training kitchen up in Castlemilk and we started working with the Hidden Gardens. Then, last year, we got Scottish government funding - through Youth Gateway - to work with 10 young people from five special educational needs schools."

The programme starts with the young people learning gardening skills, then goes on to looking at working safely in a kitchen, she says. "So they'll have 10 weeks of three-hour sessions in our training kitchen, working towards the Royal Environmental Health Institute of Scotland (REHIS) award.

"Then they're back in the garden to harvest all the produce they've planted. Then back to the kitchen to cook it all. It's a nice continuous programme, following something through to the end. In between, there's encouraging people to barter and perhaps set up some kind of cooperative together - maybe working 10 gardens in an area."

The training kitchen is a development in a community resource centre, she says. "We've kitted it out to be fully accessible, with new ovens, hobs, fridges, everything that's needed. It's a great opportunity for these young folk and a nice space for them to work in. It's about learning new skills again and getting them out into the community."

The third component of the programme is working with the youngsters to develop their personal plans, she says. "Fair Deal will take the responsibility for talking with them about their aspirations, about possible work and volunteering and what support they would need to be able to do that.

"The personalisation agenda in Glasgow means people, when they leave school, will be assessed and get their own budgets. Working with a variety of partners, we should be able to provide them with that menu of opportunities Frances was talking about. I think anything's possible, with the right input. It's about looking for potential instead of pigeonholing people."

Conor is a good example, she says. "He wants to be a chef. So why shouldn't he get a chance? We're talking to people to see if they'll let him try it, if we put the support in for him. That's the important part. The support needs to be there to help these young people achieve their potential."

Recession means tough times for everyone, she says. "But I do feel we are making progress, working with different partners like the schools, and getting young people at the transition. We want them to move into society as our children would. We don't want to limit their opportunities or their aspirations because somebody puts up a barrier.

"You have to keep knocking on doors and saying, `Come on. Give these young people a chance'." for-all01042012

Fair Deal www.fair-deal.orgindex.html

Photo: Conor Gavin has left school now but still comes to the Hidden Gardens in Pollokshields to work one day a week. Photo credit: David Gordon

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