An equal right to decide

7th March 2003 at 00:00
Ben prefers to choose his clothes by himself in the morning, but likes someone to help him pay the bus driver when he goes out. Sean wants to live near his pet rabbit and his brother, so they can play cricket.

Saiba is a good runner: she hopes to use a fitness suite when she goes to college.

Like all teenagers, these Year 9 Birmingham students from Calthorpe Special School are on the cusp of major social, emotional and educational changes.

What is different for them is that, unlike many young people with profound learning and communication difficulties, they are getting the opportunity to say what they want to happen next in their lives.

Despite the Government's guarantee since the year 2000 of a formal transition review for all statemented 14 to 15-year-olds, many schools have not yet found a way even to hold these reviews, says Claire Brown of the charity Mencap - let alone to enable them to participate fully in decisions about where they want to study, work and live.

Hence Mencap's decision to launch a ground-breaking multimedia project in special schools in Birmingham and Lichfield, to find ways to enable Year 9s to have a say about their future, and include students from mainstream schools in the process.

The Trans-active project brings together special schools, mainstream secondary schools and students and researchers from the University of East London. Students in the special schools work through a half-day careers programme once a week throughout a year, looking at their own preferences - favourite activity, favourite toy, people close to them - and exploring future employment and leisure options: visits to an FE college, a sheltered-employment cafe and garden centre, restaurants, supermarkets and a museum.

Gradually they build up a portfolio about themselves, recorded in still photographs and video, and held on an individual CD-Rom, designed by UEL's Dr Andy Minnion and students, which allows them to call up the images whenever they want to think about their own future.

Meanwhile, volunteer Year 9 students in nearby mainstream schools are working on a parallel programme in careers and citizenship which covers choices, rights and equality, and brings them together with the special school students for video and discussion sessions several times a term, as well as on college visits and a residential university weekend.

Mencap also gives these volunteers - called peer supporters - training in basic Maketon (sign language) and in advocacy: helping people make their own decisions, rather than telling them what to do. Nevertheless, says Yvonne Reilly, Calthorpe KS3 teacher, the peer supporters from nearby Golden Hillock Community School were visibly nervous on arrival: "They were quite afraid of our children when they came over: they had no experience of special needs. But by the end of it the relationships were so nice: they wanted to get together and talk and do things."

A year on, the Calthorpe students are still visibly enthusiastic about the programme - joint discos prompt lively memories - and feel close to their peer supporters, several of whom have established links between their families outside school. They talk about going to college. The peer supporters too have not only had the chance to look ahead to college and university, but also to explore the caring professions, and to think seriously about equality, says Claire Brown: "The kids from Golden Hillock initially thought Calthorpe was a better school than theirs, the students had more choice in what they did and smaller classes. They went on to consider if our culture treats people equally: if the Calthorpe students had equal access to activities in the community and equal choices about their future."

Trans-active certainly gives them more than they have had before, says Yvonne Reilly: "Being invited to choose and to express themselves was really important. Our pupils are so busy being told what to do that a lot of them have never really expressed preferences before".

Trans-active launches officially at a conference in Birmingham's Think Tank on March 19. The conference costs pound;85 for professionals; young people with disabilities and their parents go free. For details contact Claire Brown, tel: 0121 707 7877 or write to her at Mencap, 4 Swan Courtyard, Coventry Road, Birmingham, B26 1BU. Full Trans-active packs, including CD-Rom templates and access to a closed website, cost pound;750 per school, including training for five staff.

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