Sport and drama sessions for physically disabled young people have provided a vital clue to a team of specialists seeking a solution to the problems further education has in meeting the special needs of thousands of students.
For six years Basildon College has been throwing open its doors to children with moderate and severe learning difficulties and disabilities. Under the latest scheme, pupils from three special schools attend the college one day a week for physical education.
The results are speedy and remarkable. Paul Lanaway, a 19-year-old with speech and communication difficulties and very poor co-ordination, is mad about sport. According to his teacher, Ron Bates: "His whole life used to revolve around watching sport, but now he can play it as well."
And Paul admits that the lessons at the college have built his confidence to such an extent that he has joined his local athletics club. He is keen to try a range of sports including tennis and badminton.
Professor John Tomlinson, chair of the Further Education Funding Council's committee on learning difficulties and disabilities, thinks the Basildon scheme is one to highlight in his forthcoming report on learning difficulties and disabilities.
Children who receive statements of special needs while at school must be given a transitional plan covering their progress from 14 until they leave school. The 1993 Further and Higher Education Act had set up one end of the bridge to lifelong progress for children with special needs.
"It is in FE that the other end of that bridge must be built," Professor Tomlinson said. "Colleges and career officers must be involved in transition planning and be ready for when a person is brought across, if that is what they want. Something like the Basildon scheme is a good example of that."
The college started by helping out the special schools with PE, drama and other facilities they could not afford. As well as providing curriculum support, the scheme has given pupils a first-hand experience of college life and a chance to mix with the students whom they might shortly join on FE courses.
The greatest success so far has been with 14 to 16-year-olds with moderate learning difficulties. Next year, nearly half the 20 students from two local special schools are set to enrol on college courses. Attending college now allows them to get to know the staff and environment. Dave Dennis, a teacher from Castledon special school, pointed out: "A lot of them have been at the same school since they were four or five. This is their first experience of transition."
A perhaps greater challenge has come from another link with Elmbrook special school for 16 to 19-year-olds with severe learning difficulties, which Paul Lanaway attends. He found renewed confidence through games of non-stop cricket and lobbing or catching the ball.
Three-quarters of the PE lesson is meant to be fun, but the lessons are also aimed at improving co-ordination and teamwork. And, in a wider programme involving parents and carers, the college and link schools encourage pupils to think about their futures.
Kerry Harris, 18, suffering from spina bifida, had wanted to work with computers at the college and only reluctantly joined in with the sports activities. But that quickly changed. "I enjoy wheelchair racing and hitting with the cricket bat. It's helped me feel good about myself."
And from there, the confidence spreads. Sport and drama sessions for Elmbrook pupils are led by the college staff but include teachers from the special school. Although college students do not join the pupils for lessons, everyone meets in the canteen.
For many special needs pupils it is this interaction with their own age group which brings about a fundamental and necessary change in personality, said Mr Bates.
Workshops for the FEFC inquiry, organised by SKILL, the National Bureau for Students with Learning Difficulties and Disabilities, found the transition to college least stressful when pupils with special needs had friends at the college.
According to SKILL director Deborah Cooper, a Tomlinson committee member, the familiarisation which pupils experienced was vital. "Schools tend to be much smaller and cosier. Once a student goes to college, they face a bigger and bolder world."