Off to new horizons
Susan likes grain silos. It all started a few years ago, when she was asked to switch on the Christmas lights at a silo in King's Lynn, a sort of rural equivalent to London's Regent Street. Ever since, Susan has been carrying around pictures of silos wherever she goes.
Jim isn't much interested in silos, but he likes food and enjoys nothing more than cooking with his mum. Sandra looks out at the world through eyes bright with curiosity and understanding but has to feel she can trust you before she will speak. When she does, she talks slowly, each word carefully chosen. The rest of the time she sits and smiles beatifically.
Susan, Jim and Sandra, with half a dozen others, are adults with learning difficulties, ranging from their early 20s to late 40s. Once a week, they are brought to Methwold High School in West Norfolk. In the mornings, they have lessons in literacy and life skills (sewing, cookery, personal hygiene, reading newspapers) led by Community Service Volunteers (CSVs). For an hour in the afternoon they are "taught" by 13 and 14-year-old volunteers from the school, who help with reading, writing and maths.
For most of them, it is their only contact with the real world. The other four days in their weekly routine are spent at training centres for adults with learning difficulties, to which they are ferried back and forth many miles. Some have never so much as been on an escalator.
It all puts a different slant on the notion of care in the community. What community? For these adults, their villages are nothing but dormitories for them to retire to after a long day. Their lives have been so carefully circumscribed that forays into the world beyond the training centre and family home are few and far between. For some, they are non-existent.
But what has been happening in deepest, flattest, most rural Norfolk for the past four-and-a-half years has changed all that, thanks to a unique partnership between CSV, social services, schools and other community establishments.
The Vocal Project is designed to bring isolated adults with learning difficulties into the mainstream community, helping them to meet people whom they would never normally meet and to use facilities like the local library. But this widening of horizons goes further than that.
Architect of the project, CSV's regional development manager Sue Gwaspari, has developed it in such a way as to give the adults the confidence and social skills to allow them to become volunteers themselves. To date, 10 men and women work in schools, nurseries, playgroups and youth clubs throughout the area.
In schools they act as classroom assistants, giving extra attention to children who need it and helping the teacher with the taking out and putting away of equipment and books. Methwold High School has no such volunteers - yet. But the constantly evolving nature of the Vocal Project could lead to it one day.
In just a few years it has grown from a half-day session in a single room with few pupils volunteering to come in and chat at lunchtime, to the successful partnership that it is today, under the weekly direction of CSV Vocal liaison officer Lynne Fuller. Head of humanities Ivor Thurborn, the project's link teacher, recalls the first day the group came to the school. "There were 50 or 60 of our pupils lined up against the window, looking at them coming into the school, saying 'Don't they look weird! What's going on, Sir?' Today there's nothing like that. A few of the Vocal group have been known to go wandering around the school for a bit of exploring and nobody bats an eyelid. More than that, the group, which now uses three different rooms for different activities during their school day, now have their lunch in the dinner hall alongside the pupils. They sit at mixed tables and some will chat amiably with the teenagers. They seem to be accepted for what they are and when Tracy, a man in the group who doesn't speak, lets out one of his good-natured roars, nobody seems to notice.
Headteacher Ken Earle regards the Vocal project as an asset for everyone concerned. "The group has become a part of the school community and the school has benefited by having them among us, by acknowledging these people as part of their community and getting on with them. In the whole time they have been with us, there has only been one incident, when one pupil made an inappropriate comment. He was immediately taken to task by another pupil and that was that."
Earlier this year, Methwold was one of the 52 "improving" schools named in the annual report of HMChief Inspector of Schools for its positive inspection report and 10 per cent improvement in exam performance - the only one in Gillian Shephard's Norfolk constituency to be named.
But as the OFSTED report makes clear, Methwold's focus on improving exam results and league table positions does not exclude other issues.
"The development of links in the local and wider community has been a priority of the school in recent years," wrote the inspectors. "This (the Vocal Project) is a particularly successful initiative and the school is justifiably proud of the levels of support and degree of integration achieved."
It was, they said, having "a positive effect" on the attitude of pupils to disability.
It is when the Vocal group works together with the pupil volunteers in the afternoon session that the strength of the partnership becomes clear. The 10 pupils organise their own lesson plans. There is no training per se for their "teaching". Says headteacher Ken Earle: "It's better that they aren't trained, that there are no barriers between the pupils and the adults they're working with. It's the freshness of their approach that gets through to the Vocal members. They appreciate the informal one-to-one contact with the pupils. And for the pupils, it is a learning experience in itself."
The school is organised on a two-week timetable which ensures that young volunteers don't miss the same lesson each week. To be involved in the project, they must make up work they have missed. They themselves are a mixed-ability bunch with the inevitable more "caring" girls than boys.
Carl, 13, is one of the two regular boys who volunteers. He sits with Pat, an imposing, physically neglected woman who has been known to throw bins across a room. The slightly built boy patiently helps and cajoles Pat through her worksheet of simple sums.
At the next table, two lively girls work with the non-verbal Tracy, whose expressive whoops and growls punctuate the air. He clearly loves the attention and every so often, they break off from the calculator work they're doing to chat to him. One of the girls, Lucy, is his neighbour at home and confidently interprets his noises. There is a lot of laughter but also a sense of purpose. "You can't go on to doing that exercise until you've finished your sums, " Lucy admonishes him, not missing one of his many tricks.
While all the volunteer pupils say they do this to help people less able to help themselves, the benefits to them are articulated by a 12-year-old called Elizabeth. "I don't have much confidence myself and I think this has brought me on a bit. Doing this volunteering is good for me and it's good for the people I work with."
What the future holds for the Vocal project at Methwold remains to be seen. The school has just been given the go-ahead to open a sixth-form centre, which could mean a squeeze on available space. But for now, Ken Earle is impressed with the fringe benefits for everyone of having the project at the school. "It presented itself as an opportunity and once we seized it, we realised what it meant for the adults and for the school."