Why I cannot get onboard with the new college for school leavers with complex needs.
Updated: Nov 11, 2022
Firstly, I should say that this is just my opinion. I really hope the students and families who choose to go will have a great experience. But it has been heralded all over my social media streams as the answer to all our problems. To me it seems far from that. Secondly, when I first heard about the college, I was very much onboard with it, so much so that I even thought about applying for a job there. Let me explain why I have changed my mind.
For all the inclusion warriors out there, don’t be upset that I considered that it could work. In general, I would agree that another service that keeps people separate from society is not progressive. However, the reality is that, right now, there are shockingly few options out there for school leavers with learning disabilities. For most there are a choice of two, perhaps three, college courses or entering day services where you are looked after. Often people with complex physical disabilities and learning disability have only one, if any, option to carry on with education. People who have been in disability land for a while will know that terminology changes yet practice seldom does. College courses are no different. They have moved on from teaching life-skills to employability skills. Yet students are still being taught how to wash their faces and make beds. Not sure about everyone else, but these are skills I am quite secure in. I am confident I could impart my knowledge on both these talents to another person. I am also not sure how you teach employability from a classroom; certainly I have never come across someone straight out of school, university or college that didn’t need support to learn how to work. The college courses also don’t bridge the gap between the qualifications that people leave school with and what they require for other college or university. But perhaps one of the main problems of these courses is that they don’t offer students the opportunity to really follow their interests. Typically developing peers have hundreds of different courses to choose from at multiple venues and in different platforms. They can go to vocational courses, academic courses, or straight to work. In general, courses for disabled people have a few core units and the special interest units are chosen to suit the majority, or the tutors. I recognise the limitations in numbers. But surely that is another reason to make college and university colleges more accessible across the board?
When I first heard about the new college it sounded as if it could meet at least some of these gaps. I was told of a college that would spend the first couple of years on education, making up for gaps that may exist after school. The college were very interested in comprehensive literacy and full communication systems for all (1). Students would have the opportunity to develop their own interests, with the latter stages of the college devoted specifically to developing skills, qualifications, and experiences to allow them to go on to pursue their dream. It sounded too good to be true. Part of me was always aware that, as part of a cog in a bigger system, that this vision coming to life was far from a fait accompli.
There were the inevitable delays to getting started and I didn’t hear much more about the college apart from a few rumblings. It was expensive, local authorities weren’t sure if it was worth the money, but nothing about the content of the course. I went along to the open day in April 22 with some friends and their daughter. My own daughter decided that she wasn’t interested in coming along, with hindsight she was correct. I am afraid to say from the minute we stepped foot inside the building until the minute we left it was everything I had feared. Both myself and my friend’s daughter were physically and mentally unengaged in the conversation from the minute she was greeted with a patronising hello as we walked through the door. There was no evidence of the promises of teaching literacy and everyone having communication systems. Rather, it could have been a complex needs class in many of the ASN schools throughout the country. A brand-new environment for the students to learn the exact same things they have had since primary one, and in the same way. There were symbols dotted about, a room with eye gaze devices for pupils to practice popping bubbles, numbers 1 to 10, easy read instructions. There was nothing new or innovative about the college. Nothing to give the students the chance to shine, recognise their skills and gifts, or help them gain skills. It seemed as if pupils would be once again starting from the beginning, letters and beginning communication. I do not know the level of literacy or communicative competence that any of the students could attain if given the opportunity. But I do know that by not been given the opportunity to participate in a comprehensive literacy programme and by not having robust communication the chances of the students progressing are severely compromised. If they have not progressed from traditional teaching in 13 plus years of formal education, do they not deserve a chance to try something different? If not, I am afraid the college becomes nothing more than an expensive babysitting service where the lack of development is blamed on the individual and their disability rather than anything to do with the teaching methods and lack of communication skills. Nothing more than an extra place for disabled people to remain segregated from society.
I had wanted this college to be part of the change. Offering disabled people a chance of different experiences that may end up being a work opportunity or a fulfilling hobby. Offering students the chance to bridge the gaps in education between school and mainstream courses. Offering students an opportunity to make something of their lives. The vision was good, the reality is that, in my opinion, as it stands this college could be hugely detrimental to the disability rights movement. The chances are it will be replicated across the country. More disabled people denied their rights to education, communication, and to be part of their communities. Yet no-one will ever question why the students never make progress, they are disabled after all. No-one will consider that the failed teaching is the fault of those teaching. The students will have met their only goal that they have, to reach a “positive destination” after school, never to be considered a part of the statistics again. Forgotten, looked after, trapped forever in disability land and burdening society with significant care costs that could be substantially reduced through enabling them to lead a worthwhile life, contributing to society than the other way round. This is what the new college means to me. I sincerely hope I am wrong.
1. The research for both comprehensive literacy and full communication systems indicates that these are the best ways for students to learn. Yet despite some of the evidence being over 40 years old, there has been little progress in practice within specialist settings. McNaughton et al., (2019). Building capacity in AAC: A person-centred approach to supporting participation by people with complex communication needs. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, Advance online publication. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1080/07434618.2018.1556731.