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Wigan shows that mission is possible

Students enrolling this week at Wigan and Leigh College will not find programmes strictly for people with special needs on the comprehensive course list.

Jane Saldanha, learning support manager, politely explains to callers inquiring about courses for wheelchair-users or for dyslexic students the college's policy of avoiding segregation.

"It is just a nonsense," she says. "There is no more sense in having separate courses for those groups than for people who wear pink knickers on a Tuesday. "

Wigan and Leigh, which earned a rare grade one for its special needs provision in a recent inspection, already subscribes to the student-centred approach recommended in the Tomlinson Committee's report. Every student's needs are individually assessed on enrolment, and each is assigned a learning support worker who ensures those requirements are met throughout their time at college. "All our students with any disabilities are doing whichever programme of study is suited to their needs," says principal Margaret Murdin, a specialist in provision for students with disabilities or learning difficulties. "We have several hundred students in that category, and each gets whatever is the most appropriate level and type of support."

Students with moderate learning difficulties can be found at Wigan and Leigh running a cafeteria for staff and students as part of a catering national vocational qualification.

A blind student with a hearing impairment enrolling this term is now embarking on a tough programme of German, Russian and law A-levels with the aid of a scribe whenever he is in college and a voice-activated tape recorder to help him run through classes again at home. Wheelchair-users are on the registers of a wide range of programmes, and the college is happy to move any inaccessible course to a more suitable location, facilities permitting.

Only occasionally will a student be advised to avoid a particular option, usually because their chances of succeeding or of becoming more employable as a result are very low. "It would be unfair to create unrealistic expectations" says Ms Saldanha. "Honest advice is very important."

In every case, she adds, the approach is "very, very individual". The same disability, she points out, can manifest itself very differently in different students. Epilepsy could lead to frequent concentration loss or rare but serious fits, while dyslexia has a wide range of forms.

Every student assessed is given a learning support plan which will be regularly reviewed - frequently at first and then perhaps once a term once students have established their needs.

The work of learning support staff at the college is backed up with compulsory training for general teaching staff. Each knows the precise nature of each student's special needs and is trained to cope with any difficulties from the day-to-day to emergencies. Staff awareness and staff development are vital, according to Ms Murdin. "It is a question of changing perceptions from 'I have got a student here with a problem' to thinking 'what sort of service does this student need'."

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