Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Small steps, Giant strides

three women cooking

Transition at age 16 can be especially difficult for students with learning difficulties and disabilities. Christine Tyler explains how Oakwood High School, a special school in Salford, has joined up with Eccles College to give its students a better chance to succeed in work and school.

Approaching Oakwood High School, the leafy environs of Ellesmere Park in Salford give the distinct impression of affluence. However, the school provides education for children across an area of high deprivation and is a special school in many senses.

Oakwood enrols about 180 students, all with moderate learning difficulties and some with physical disabilities, catering for their social as well as educational needs.

It was about 10 years ago that the school started investigating the transition process for its students at age 16.

Moving forward at this age can be a frustrating experience for students with learning difficulties and disabilities, as they may not be ready for the challenges of further education or the world of work.

Many students found that after about three months in their new environment - whether they were college students or trainees - they felt unsettled and dissatisfied with their choice.

Headteacher Janis Triska wanted to ensure that students received the same level of stimulation and challenge that they did at Oakwood when they moved on.

With the aid of the former Further Education Funding Council (FEFC), she established a research project to look at ways that students could be better supported, whatever route they chose.

The major recommendation was the appointment of a transition adviser to work with students, their parents and post-16 organisations to identify pathways and specific individual support needs. The FEFC funded the new post for a year, and its success convinced the school that it was worth embedding the cost into future staffing budgets.
On her appointment as transition adviser, Karen Devine, formerly a teaching assistant, spent time developing links with post-16 providers in the Salford area. She was keen to establish credible pathways and worked particularly hard to keep parents in the loop, so that students received support for their efforts at home as well as school.

One problem she faced was that, often, parents considered that the financial rewards of employment for their sons and daughters did not merit relinquishing state subsidies, such as their carers' allowances.
Karen was able to demonstrate to parents that if the young people were carefully directed to further study, training, or employment with training, they were happier and healthier and developed motivation to succeed that compensated for possible loss of benefits. For example, pupils who had experienced taster days at college were so enthusiastic and motivated that parents could see how the experience would work for them, both in the short and long term.

FE partnership

It was about this time that a relationship with Eccles College was forged. Oakwood identified that the traditional sixth form college of about 1,000 mainly level 3 students, based nearby in pleasant grounds and virtually barrier-free, could provide opportunities for Oakwood students to develop their independence gradually in a supportive environment.

At the start, in 1997, Eccles College worked with Oakwood to enable nine 16 year-old students to attend college for three days per week supported by a care assistant from Oakwood, with two days in school.
The following year, a work preparation course was devised to give progression to the Edexcel qualification that provides students with the skills for independent living and 24 students joined from Oakwood on a gradually increasing number of days per week.

A care assistant was seconded to the college as an unqualified teacher, working with the college tutor and a college-employed care assistant.
Further growth in 1999 saw the introduction of a MENCAP essential skills course leading to Work Preparation and Edexcel, with 43 students involved. From 2000 onwards, the route was enhanced by the ASDAN qualification and numbers grew from 87.

By gradually introducing new qualifications Eccles College now offers four levels of progression for entry level students with learning difficulties (within five separate teaching groups) and an additional level for adults, entitled Next Step.

Shared aims and activities have cemented the transition, including Oakwood's hugely successful Youth Club, established in 1991 with support from Lottery money.

Former Oakwood and Eccles students who are over 23 and no longer qualify as members train as helpers and continue to support the club. It is open every night directly after school and for two evenings per week as well as weekends.

A feature of the partnership was the Ellesmere Park Festival of Arts in summer 2005, to be repeated this year. Joint productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream and a trip to Stratford upon Avon featured in the last festival, along with puppet shows, art exhibitions, choirs, orchestras and bands.

Oakwood's specialist arts college status contributed to the funding of this, as did the college and other local sponsors.

The Oakwood-based So Many Words drama club has produced a series of award-winning films, and sports activities include canoe training, outdoor pursuits and rugby training, as well as fun sports for all. Several Oakwood and Eccles students play in the England Special Needs Football squad and more than hold their own in the regular Eccles College five-a-side competitions.

However, it's not just students who have gained from the Oakwood/Eccles transition programme. Parents have given feedback on how the whole family has been helped by the experience. Some parents accompany students on the annual Blackpool holiday, which consists of a week of activities centred on an appropriately-equipped hotel on the promenade.

It is one of the highlights of college life (along with the Christmas Concert and Pop Idol competition) and many school and college staff, including the EMA and finance officers travel up to Blackpool to 'have their tea' as the students express it.

Open doors

As the opportunities and reputation of the courses have grown, students from other schools enrolled on the programmes, with encouragement from Connexions staff.

Whilst the majority of students still come from Oakwood (which now has a brand new building situated next door to the college) students from across the Manchester conurbation have joined, most notably from the Bridge School in Stockport, which caters for students with severe learning difficulties.

The Greater Manchester LSC has supported expansion through increased additional learning support and DDA funds have been imaginatively used to enhance specialist facilities.

All prospective students attend the college to spend time with the other students and teachers and to see if programmes meet their needs. In 2005, 22 students joined the programme for five full days of tailored visits in small groups.

New students come in for part of the week at first and then increase their attendance as they become more integrated with college activities.

Transition arrangements are partially funded through Oakwood's specialist arts and technology college funding and partly from the general school and college budgets.

Karen Devine, the transition adviser who set the ball rolling, now has a BEd degree and works in the college one day per week, maintaining contact with former students and assisting integration of new students.
Another Oakwood staff member works with the Eccles College entry level for one day per week and Eccles course leader Joy Wright frequently participates in training and review meetings with Oakwood staff and students. Joy joined the college in 1998 as a care assistant on secondment from Oakwood and is now completing her MA in education, focusing on special educational needs.

Success in evolution

The success of the Oakwood/Eccles partnership has evolved over nine years. Its secret lies in an incremental, evolutionary approach to change and its achievement has been recognised by external bodies - both the school and college received a grade 1 in recent inspections.
What makes this partnership so special is the effect it has had on students and staff who were formerly unaccustomed to sharing their lives with students with learning difficulties and disabilities.

Eccles College's mission is inclusive - and this is easy to say, but hard to be. A visit to the college canteen at lunchtime, or a view of the numerous displays of work in the corridors demonstrate how these students are fully integrated into the social and academic life of the college. Working and socialising with entry level students provides new insights for all students into the society in which they live and will work.

There are daily examples of students demonstrating mature and supportive attitudes to each other and visitors to the college often comment on its caring atmosphere.

For Oakwood students nearing the age of 16, there is a local, viable and exciting option in familiar surroundings, with the support of teachers and friends that they know will be around to assist them in their transition from school to college.

The new specialised diplomas offer yet more opportunities for development, as Oakwood has opened its construction vocational training area for use by Eccles students and joint curriculum teams are designing modular courses that can be continued to completion when Oakwood students move on to college.

For these students, their parents and teachers, the future looks bright. The transitional arrangements that started with nine part-time pupils and now have over 80 full-time students have been successful because they were considered, rooted in research and based on long-term commitment and trust between school and college.

Christine Tyler was principal of Eccles College until her retirement last year. She is now ASCL's college consultant.

For more information, see www.ecclescollege.ac.uk or www.oakwoodhighschool.co.uk

© 2017 Association of School and College Leaders