Lessons in leaving

6th May 2005 at 01:00
Students need lots of help to adjust when they finish school. Neil Levis reports

Problems don't disappear for students with special needs once they leave school. But, too often, the care and support they have received throughout their school lives does disappear when they start looking for work or want to continue their education.


"Kids don't stop having problems once services stop being provided for them," says Dr Amanda Kirby, director of the Dyscovery Centre in Cardiff.

"These young people need a lot of support: with careers guidance, with organisation and planning in a new environment, with relationships - some of them have problems socialising - and they face many practical challenges, too."

Usually, they need time to learn independent-living skills: occupational therapy can help them come to terms with such areas as money management, travelling and self-care.

Colleges and workplaces need to work on the environment they present to newcomers, says Dr Kirby. For example, they should make application forms accessible online, and allow written work to be done on computer, so students with handwriting problems can be accommodated.

"People should understand that if a child has poor handwriting at 15 then it probably always will be that way, and the world needs to adapt to their needs."

The Dyscovery Centre was set up when Dr Kirby found that her son Andrew was dyspraxic and there was little practical support for him. Andrew, now 19, starts university this year, studying business. His mother has helped him throughout his education, but for every advance in making the world friendly to a student with learning difficulties, there are regular frustrations.

"Higher education has a good record for dyslexic students," she says, "but if you're dyspraxic, or going into a lot of further education colleges, the deal is not so good. And starting work can be rife with difficulties."

At Treloar college in Alton, Hampshire, an independent college, the majority of the 181 students, who are aged 16 to 19, have cerebral palsy.

The college puts a heavy emphasis on careers and has four dedicated staff.

One teacher specialises in welfare benefits, another in housing matters, and a third in organising work experience.

Such commitment produces results. At the top end, 26 students are taking A-levels at nearby Alton college, with 20 teaching assistants to provide the necessary practical help.

Students taking vocational courses spend the first three weeks being assessed, before studying for a range of Btec or Asdan qualifications.

These cover such areas as community and domestic skills, working with others, and sport and leisure, as well as basic skills and traditional subjects.

The students, who come from all over the country, rely heavily on their local Connexions advisers for initial funding through the Learning and Skills Council, and for their transition back into their local community at the end of their courses.

"The service is variable," says Graham Brill, the college's specialist careers adviser. "Some are very positive, visiting regularly and liaising with students' homes. But others, we rarely see.


"When pupils leave us, they rely on adult services in their local areas to continue the work we've done with them. For some, there is a black hole at 18. It is the big fault with the system and something all services need to address."

Filling that black hole is the aim of Moving On in the Community, a new initiative from the Treloar Trust, the charity behind the college and its sister school for younger pupils. Last month, it appointed two outreach workers to track down former students and help them re-evaluate their lives.

"We'll give them 12 weeks of concentrated assistance with such things as housing, welfare benefits, meeting new friends, and assessing their exercise and physiotherapy needs," says Rosie Lewis, the trust's marketing director. The scheme echoes the course that all students undergo before they leave Treloar, but will be more developed.


"Basically, there are not enough resources," says Lewis. "Well-connected parents find the system yields to them because they have enough fight despite the exhausting day-to-day care. The outreach workers are there to help those less fortunate, who lack confidence. We want to get them back on track if they've slipped, help them make new friends if they've become isolated and move them on."

Initially, the scheme will run in Woking, Surrey, and Lewisham, south-east London, but the trust is hoping it will become a model for other local authorities.

Last September, the Dyscovery Centre launched Project Success with the British Dyslexia Association to extend the learning experiences of 2,000 young people in poor areas of Wales. The idea is to raise their expectations and self-esteem by providing ICT solutions and learning coaches.

Many young people are unaware of their strengths, says Dr Kirby.

Traditionally, the way education views them concentrates on their weaknesses. "Focusing on their hobbies reveals their competencies," she says. "Such positive life experiences are a strong drive to careers."

She also believes that if students build their confidence in one set of skills they will do better in other areas, too. "If we can help raise their athletic competence through exercise, we can help them raise their academic performance."


Leaving school has a different meaning for pupils with profound special needs. Few will be able to hold down jobs in the open marketplace, but many will work in sheltered workplaces.

"Our job is to prepare them for life," says Chris Darlington, head of St Hugh's special school, Scunthorpe. "To do so, we have to adopt a holistic approach. We need to give them the skills, confidence and knowledge they need: understanding their own strengths, the areas to develop and how best to develop them."

He also feels young people need to be more involved in decisions about their future. "We must let them experience the choices they face so they can compare their options."

This is a theme promoted by the Council for Disabled Children through its person-centred planning scheme, which helps students plan their futures with support from professionals, families and friends.

Person-centred planning was given government approval in the White Paper Valuing People. "At the moment, disabled young people are not always involved in their transition planning meetings," says Lucia Winters of the Council for Disabled Children. "It's about enabling them to discover what is most important to them so they know what they want to do with their lives."

Keith Humphreys, who 12 years ago founded Equals, a charity supporting staff in special schools, believes the system should concentrate on giving people with profound disabilities an education that helps them enter adult life with a proper sense of self-worth - so qualifications are important.

"Even those who cannot perform to the full level of the national curriculum should be able to get awards," he says.


* The Transition Information Network's website is at www.myfuturechoices.org.uk

* Moving On in the Community can be contacted by email at movingontreloar.org.uk

* Project Success can be contacted on 01656 724585

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