Sarah Farley joined teenagers on a residential week which complemented practical tasks with meeting new people.
Spending five days mopping floors or creosoting a fence is not the usual enticement offered for a "Short Break". But it is highly recommended by the 30 students in a group of 16 to 18-year-olds from special schools in Lincolnshire who took part in an innovative residential and work experience week, held at Horncastle College.
Arranging suitable work experience placements is a headache for many schools. For schools whose pupils are deemed to have severe learning difficulties (SLD), the problems are doubled, partly because of the complexities of organising transport and partly because of the reservations employers have about employing young people with, for example, Down's syndrome or autism.
"Going away to stay at new places and meeting new people are also experiences many of these young people are missing," says Irena Peden, a teacher from John Fielding School, Boston. "This is something which especially concerns us when the student concerned is hoping to go on to stay at a college. They worry a great deal about the social side of going on a course, or of starting work. "
The project, developed by teachers from the special schools working within Lincolnshire County Council's TVEI project, provides the students with the opportunity to experience set tasks in gardening, groundwork and maintenance, cleaning and domestic work, shopping, food preparation, painting and decorating, window cleaning, and buildings maintenance. Each group of four to five students was supervised by a member of staff from Horncastle College, North Lincolnshire College, or firms connected with the college, such as Tylers Ground Maintenance.
To assess their progress and provide evidence of what they had achieved, each pupil kept a work-experience module record, they and their supervisor noting whether they had met their aims and objectives, and whether expected outcomes had been reached.
Julian Cousins, handyperson at Horncastle College, took charge of one group, whose task was to paint a shed and a fence, and tidy up the ground. Like others on the college staff, he had no experience of working with people with SLD before. "It was a fantastic week. After we had got over the initial frustration of finding out how best to communicate, we understood each other well. I had chosen jobs that weren't too technical, but they buckled down and really got on with it all. I was surprised how well they concentrated on what they were doing. And we had great fun, a lot of jokes."
Peter Weston, principal of Horncastle College, admitted there had been reservations about the suitability of the building for the physically handicapped students. (They had not been able to stay overnight and had consequently missed much of the social aspect of the visit.)
"Not all the staff were immediately enthusiastic either," he says. "But by the end of the week everyone had joined in the project in some way. The friendly and helpful attitude of the students is so attractive it overcame any reservations of the staff. We have carried on functioning with the usual college courses for visiting groups. The only difference has been a wonderful buzz in the atmosphere."
Certainly there was much merriment among the students, but not at the expense of achieving what they set out to do. "We are very pleased with they way the pupils have all achieved something definite," says Irena Peden. "At the beginning of the week they were shown how to do their tasks and by Thursday some really were working on their own. Lisa, for example, went off to fill a bucket without being told, and worked out that it's better to mop a floor from the side opposite the door so that you don't leave footprints on your nice clean floor!"
In addition to the work experience record, the students kept a daily pupil-assessment form on which they noted how they had performed at various routine tasks such as getting up, washing and dressing on their own, finding their own way to where they worked, and how they had achieved tasks in set times, and understood instructions. Teachers also noted their record of what had been achieved.
"I would put socialising top of what I think they have achieved," says Ann Stebbings, from St Bernard's School, Louth. "To suddenly have to talk to and work with three or four other people who are strangers, and take instructions from an unknown adult is really a big step for these students. We also organised some leisure events, such as a visit to the pub and a disco. We were concerned that some pupils would not respond well, and we have been delighted with the great efforts they have made to accept each other. We even have two or three romances."
"As for their achievements on the practical side, they have surpassed our expectations. I think many of their parents and other teachers will be amazed to hear what they have done."
With confidence boosted all round, the group were reluctant to leave their new-found friends. But as with all good holidays, there are still the photographs and video, proving what work each one can do, and what fun it can be.
* For more details contact Melvyn Ruff, Lincolnshire TVEI, Horncastle College, Mareham Road, Horncastle, Lincs LN6 6BW. Tel: 01507 526768