A special welcome

24th September 2004 at 01:00
Children with special educational needs have found their own place in the sun ... a grand hotel that they can call their own Martin Whittaker checks in

In the kitchen, children are busy making their own packed lunches for a day out. Next door, others are playing snooker, while up in their bedrooms a few stragglers are still getting dressed. Assistant head Sue Corry is calling for help to clear away the breakfast things.

Sounds like a typical day in the average home, but the teenagers Ms Corry is calling seem to be using this fine Edwardian building overlooking the bay at Minehead like a hotel.

Nothing wrong with that, because it is. But it is not an ordinary hotel. At first glance, the Wyndcott looks like many of the other family-run establishments on the North Somerset coast, but it opens its doors all year round to groups of visiting students with special educational needs.

The hotel was bought three years ago by the March Foundation, a registered charity set up to offer workshops and breaks that take SEN children out of the classroom to a comfortable setting that's a few notches up from your average youth hostel or residential centre.

In mid-June a dozen Year 9 pupils from Dove House, a school for children with moderate learning difficulties in Basingstoke, arrived for four days of relaxation, sightseeing and activities. They spent their first day exploring Exmoor and the nearby resorts of Lynton and Lynmouth, followed by an evening paddling in the sea.

This is the school's third visit. But before coming here some of these children had never seen a beach, explains head Colin House. And, he says, the 10-bedroom hotel gives them the space and flexibility to be themselves.

The bedrooms are big with en suite bathrooms and are very comfortable. The hotel is enclosed in its own grounds, making it easy to monitor pupils.

"When we come, you can throw away the clock," says Mr House, in shorts and T-shirt. "The children ask what time do we have to go to bed? We say, when we're ready. It's just the fact that we can sit here with the children who are very relaxed around the place. A lot of them come from a pressured existence on council estates. Having the children in such a pleasant atmosphere, the advantages and the learning you can do are tremendous. They get a chance to see what life possibly can be like. We open their eyes - raise their expectations."

The hotel can provide cooked breakfasts and meals, or allow groups to do self-catering. This flexible arrangement gives Dove House the chance to involve the pupils in helping to decide the week's eating arrangements, and in buying and preparing the food.

The March Foundation provides structured programmes for visiting schools, but visitors can do their own thing. The foundation was set up by a group of 14 trustees - nine of them teachers, to give opportunities for children with learning difficulties to move out of their routine surroundings, particularly those included in mainstream schools.

Charity spokeswoman Suzanne Richards says: "This is bringing the children out of their normal classroom environment, and bringing them somewhere quite posh rather than a youth hostel.

"They do respond well - it's a nice environment for them to be in. Schools like Dove House are quite independent and don't want us to do very much for them. Last week's school we had quite a lot of organising to do for them.

We are very flexible."

Ms Corry says for the pupils, staying in the hotel is as important and educational as any of the trips out. "We learn to prepare a meal together and to sit around a table, which knives and forks to use," she says. "These children wouldn't have that experience unless we provided it for them. We could ask the hotel to cook for us, but it's nice to have everybody doing their bit."

The hotel does not have wheelchair access, but the foundation aims to build accessible self-contained units. It is open to visits throughout the school year and there are housekeeping staff on site. At weekends and in summer holidays, it reverts to taking paying guests, which helps subsidise visits.

The foundation also offers teachers complementary preview visits.

Wyndcott Hotel. Tel: 01643 704522 Dove House school's visit for two teachers and 12 students cost pound;800, not including travel.


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