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Uncertain future for Aisha

Students with learning disabilities are having to leave their day centre and attend college instead

AISHA BOOTH has Down's syndrome and a mental age of four. Her parents say the 27-year-old is unable to make a bus journey on her own.

But now she and nearly 50 other students with varying degrees of learning disability are to be assessed for a course designed to get them into employment, and their day centre will be closed.

Southwark College in south London, which owns the Grange centre, says the changes are designed to provide a high-quality education in line with recommendations from the Government and the Learning and Skills Council to create a "fully inclusive" curriculum.

But to some parents of people with more severe learning difficulties, it feels like their lifeline is being cut. Chris Booth, Aisha's father, said:

"We were absolutely astounded. Aisha is very upset. We've been trying to explain to her that she may have to leave the Grange and she doesn't want to go. It's hard to explain why she has to.

"The Grange for these people is their school, their college, their workplace in one - it's their building. These are people who have never been in a mainstream situation: they've only ever been in special schools or the Grange. Dealing with change is very difficult.

"It's our experience at the Grange that some students do manage to obtain employment - maybe three hours a day at Sainsbury's. But for the majority, it's never going to happen."

Southwark also has a high unemployment rate, at over 11 per cent, although the college says that there are agencies dedicated to helping disabled people find work.

A former Victorian school, the Grange was converted into a centre for students with learning disabilities by Southwark College. Aisha, like many others there, spends five days a week at the centre learning independent living skills, reading, writing and basic maths, as well as dance, music and drama.

But the building needs work, and a refurbishment was promised about 18 months ago. Around the same time, the Learning and Skills Council published a report which recommended that education should not subsidise social care, and that colleges should be encouraged to help disabled people enter the workplace.

So now the college has decided students will transfer to one of its main sites in September. The centre will close in 2008 and be put up for sale.

The college says the proceeds will be invested in facilities for people with disabilities, as part of a plan across two boroughs in south London to create excellent provision that includes disabled people in mainstream society.

The students' new base on the Bermondsey campus will have better facilities, including a dedicated theatre, as well as mock-ups of a cafe, offices and a living space for them to try out practical skills, the college says.

Dorothy Jones, the principal of Southwark College, said students would be assessed and offered courses leading to employment if they were suitable.

Others could do leisure courses, although she said the college was aiming to provide excellent education and training and was not a substitute for day care. All courses would have a fixed duration, unlike the Grange's open-ended provision.

"Many of these adults are perfectly able to work and play a real role in society. We will have more work-oriented courses for them," she said.

"But each individual will be assessed. If what is needed is more day care, then that's something we need to work with social services on. In terms of education, we want to provide something which is excellent.

"I think we can make a difference for a large number of adults. We want to try and make sure people get provision which is long-lasting and worthwhile."

Comment, page 4


A charity has said that, with the right support, even those with the most severe learning disabilities can be helped into some form of employment, writes Joseph Lee.

Beth Carruthers, director of employment services at the disability charity Remploy, said people who struggled even with the basics of independent living could be helped into work.

But people with learning disabilities might need a mentor at work to help them with their tasks.

She said: "What matters is what you provide for the individual. It's about making sure all the social support is in place.

"The benefit is interesting. Many employers find it difficult to retain people in lower-skilled jobs and it's quite advantageous to give a job to someone who's content doing it. And the support they need reduces over time, so there's an overall gain."

She cited the example of one young woman with Down's syndrome and severe learning difficulties, who was working in a care home as a maid, with the support of one of the other domestic staff.

"Some people just have to memorise a task, but others have someone to work alongside them and guide them," she said.

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