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State of independence

Now in its 10th year, Work Skills Week offers a residential course with social and practical experience. Sarah Farley reports on a hands-on initiative

Building barbecues is becoming a speciality for students attending Work Skills Week at Linkage College, a residential college for young people with learning difficulties and disabilities. Normally the college, at Toynton All Saints, near Spilsby, Lincolnshire, is used by students aged from 16 to 23, who come from all over the country to learn practical skills and independent living and, when possible, gain qualifications.

However, during half-term, the Linkage Community Trust is generously hosting a residential week for 16 to 18-years-olds from seven schools in Lincolnshire for children with severe learning difficulties.

The Work Skills Week is in its 10th year, the eighth at this site. "That's a barbecue we built last year," says Norma Oxby, one of the founder members of the programme and a teacher at Queen's Park School, Lincoln. "For some students this is probably the first time they have had an opportunity to build something for real." The barbecue that Norma is pointing out is in the garden of one of the smart residential blocks at Linkage College.

Fifty-nine students are attending for the week, all on a residential basis except one school where some students also have physical disabilities for which Linkage is unable to cater.

Having the support of the college's regular teachers is a huge bonus for the schools. The staff are all highly qualified in teaching students with learning difficulties and experienced in their subject areas. Steve Riley is in charge of the horticulture group, which went out to a garden centre to buy plants and then planted them in beds and pots around the campus.

Overseeing three students and two teachers weeding a bed planted last year, he shows them how to disentangle weeds from shrubs. "The main challenge for students is concentrating on the tasks, especially when they are getting tired," he comments. "But even those with lower levels of ability can achieve great satisfaction from a well-weeded bed. It is a sociable occupation too. This group didn't know each other before but they have gelled and become friends."

Students chose their areas of work from a list of options: sport, leisure, music and drama, car mechanics, craft, catering, woodcraft, IT and computing, horticulture, painting, building, and media. "The level of achievement can be impressive. In my area of IT there are some students who really find their niche, producing PowerPoint presentations or researching on the internet," says Steve. "But sometimes their aspirations are rather high - some choose music and drama, with the hope they will work in television."

In the IT room, Gareth is working on his programme, inserting sounds and clip-art images. He is smartly dressed in a shirt and shoes - not trainers.

"He has made such an effort," says Norma. "We say they should dress as though they are going to work, and Gareth has risen to the challenge."

Deciding what to wear, and looking after their personal hygiene, are choices not all the students are used to. "We have to remind them about what they need to take to the shower, and to use a razor. It's all part of the experience here."

On the edge of the Lincolnshire Wolds, the grounds of the college provide an attractive and secure environment for the students. "There is a benefit for us in the arrangement," says Hugh Williams, education director of the Linkage Community Trust. "It gives the college staff an insight into the real ability of individual students who might attend the college after school."

One group of students has the brief to make a video of the week, which they will show during the grand presentation to parents on the last day.

Wielding the clapperboard is soon a popular activity.

"They are producing some good material," says college media tutor Tom Woodgate. "Patrick, who is presenter, really has got the hang of it. Much of the time they are working independently and don't realise that they are practising literacy and numeracy skills through planning and recording the project."

The work skills assessment sheets from previous years, recording the progress students made during the week, demonstrate how individuals develop socially and in practical competence. They gain confidence through the independence of being able to wander around the campus on their own, visiting each others' houses, getting to "work" on time, properly dressed.

The social evenings, with trips to bowling, the cinema or the pub, also help self-esteem to grow. "I was afraid John would not join in at all and he can be very disruptive," comments one teacher. "But he has taken part and is enjoying himself. We are delighted."

Amid such success and positive enthusiasm looms the thought of "What next?"

for these young people. They will have some experience, but what work is there likely to be?

"It is difficult to find work in the community which is suitable, but this week will give some students more options, and a few will go on to gain qualifications," says Norma. "But the focus on independent-living skills is very important here as that may be a start to having their own place to live and follow their own interests in life."


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